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France

French judge faces disciplinary panel in wrongful imprisonment case

Latest update : 2009-02-02

Fabrice Burgaud, an examining magistrate from 1999 to 2002, faces a disciplinary panel for his role in the wrongful imprisonment of 13 suspects in a paedophilia scandal that has turned into a political issue for French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

REUTERS - A French magistrate faced a disciplinary panel on Monday over his role in the wrongful imprisonment of 13 suspects in a paedophilia scandal that has turned into a political issue for President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The disciplinary procedure against Fabrice Burgaud, 37, will be closely watched by Sarkozy, who announced last month he would scrap the position of examining magistrate which Burgaud held at the time of the child abuse investigation in 1999-2002.

Burgaud is accused of having suspects incarcerated based on unsubstantiated allegations that a group of neighbours were abusing children in the northern town of Outreau. The allegations turned out to be wildly exaggerated.

Four people were eventually convicted, but 13 others were cleared after spending up to 39 months in jail.  The case is considered one of the worst miscarriages of justice in recent French history and Burgaud's record is one of the strongest arguments in favour of Sarkozy's decision to scrap the powerful position of examining magistrate.

But examining magistrates have spearheaded efforts in the past 20 years to investigate corruption in politics and many in the justice system say that getting rid of them would make it easier for politicians to hide their wrongdoing.

Burgaud and his defenders say that he is a scapegoat and that the disciplinary action against him is designed to bolster the argument in favour of Sarkozy's controversial reform.

"This is not about judging a magistrate but about enacting a political strategy. Mr Burgaud is a pawn in a game where the stakes go far beyond him," said Jean-Yves Montfort, a magistrate who is assisting Burgaud with his defence.

The disciplinary panel is made up of magistrates and they could decide to ban Burgaud from working in the justice system.

Under a legal system that dates back to Napoleon, examining magistrates are supposed to consider all elements of a case, whether they strengthen or weaken the case against the suspects. Burgaud is accused of ignoring evidence that showed many of the Outreau suspects were being wrongly accused.

Under Sarkozy's proposed reform, state prosecutors would be tasked with building up the case against suspects, while lawyers would focus on the case for the defence.

Critics of the plan say that it undermines judicial independence because prosecutors answer to the justice ministry, as opposed to examining magistrates who are independent. The critics say the government would be able to stop or manipulate inconvenient investigations through the prosecutors.

Date created : 2009-02-02

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