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Court denies nuclear test victims compensation

Video by Marian HENBEST

Text by Clea CAULCUTT

Latest update : 2009-05-25

A French court has decided not to grant reparations to the families of 12 former soldiers who suffered from health problems following nuclear tests conducted by France in Algeria and French Polynesia beginning in the 1960s.

Planting the nation’s flag is usually an honour soldiers recall with pride, but for Gerard Dellac, a French former service member in Algeria, it’s a moment he’d rather forget. In February 1960, Dellac was ordered to plant a French flag in ground zero of France’s first nuclear test, Gerboise Bleue, in the Algerian desert.


“Nobody said it would be dangerous, we were told nothing,” said Dellac in an interview with FRANCE 24. While working at the test site, he says he wore a cloth suit, rubber gloves and a Second World War gasmask.


Today, Dellac suffers from skin cancer, an illness he believes was caused by his exposure to nuclear radiation. However,

his latest plea for reparations at the Paris appeals court was rejected today.


“We expected [this decision] but still I didn’t think it was going happen,” said Dellac. “It’s difficult to live through this.”


On Friday, the French court also refused to award reparations to eleven other former French service members. “We are angry about this scandalous decision,” said Michel Verger, President of the Association that represents nuclear test victims, including the plaintiffs and their families.


The judgment comes just days before the French government discusses a new bill to organise reparations for the victims of 210 nuclear tests carried out in Algeria and in French Polynesia between 1960 and 1996. About 150,000 people participated in either a civilian or a military capacity in these tests.


A long legal battle


Friday’s court decision upholds the initial ruling of the Commission for the Indemnification of Victims of Penal Infraction (French acronym: CIVI), which had rejected the plea in February 2009 on the basis that the events in question occurred prior to 1976, when the law was created.


French servicemen had pleaded for compensation on the grounds that the CIVI had granted reparations to civilian employees who had suffered severe illnesses following their exposure to asbestos and that some of those cases had occurred before 1976. (The state had failed to change asbestos standards to protect the health of French citizens, French courts had ruled.)


According to the plaintiffs' lawyers, veterans and civilians should not be treated differently. "Employees are compensated in most cases, while service members are left out, it’s unacceptable," said lawyer François Lafforgue who represented the veterans at the trial.


The plaintiffs, seven of whom are now deceased, demanded a total of approximately five million euros. Diseases suffered include cancers of the skin, blood, and kidneys.


The Paris Appeals court maintains veterans should apply to military pensions’ courts to obtain reparations. However, very few former servicemen have received reparations after bringing their case to military tribunals.


“A military report of the army shows that I received 1,500 milirams of radiation,” says Dellac. The military has refused to grant him reparations on the grounds his exposure to radiation was “too low”, he says.


But according to his lawyers, the criteria of the French army are outdated and do not take into account the long-term effects of radiation.


Veterans unconvinced


All eyes are now focused on the French government ahead of discussion, next Wednesday, on new legislation, which earmarks some 10 million euros for reparations.


If the bill is passed, French veterans will no longer be required to prove that nuclear tests caused the illnesses they suffer. French service members who suffer radio-induced illnesses and who were present on nuclear test sites should obtain reparation.


However, veterans say they have yet to be convinced by the new legislation. French Defense minister Hervé Morin said only “several dozens or several hundred” of veterans would obtain reparations.


According to Dallac, Morin underestimates the number of people who will need reparations. “Our association numbers some 450 widows, that’s not nothing,” he said.

Date created : 2009-05-23