French cannibal's prison a 'failure', court hears

22nd June 2010, Comments 0 comments

A prisoner on trial for killing his cellmate and devouring his lung with fried onions put France's troubled prison system under new scrutiny Tuesday.

Nicolas Cocaign, 39, is charged with murdering Thierry Baudry, by punching him, stabbing him with a pair of scissors and suffocating him with a rubbish bag before cutting him open with a razor blade.

After removing a rib, Cocaign pulled out a lung, which he mistook for his victim's heart, ate part of it raw and then fried the rest of it with onions on a makeshift stove in his cell, prosecutors say.

The court heard findings from a report however into a string of "failures" at the jail in the northwestern city of Rouen where Cocaign was behind bars at the time of the killing in January 2007.

On the first day of the trial, Cocaign testified that authorities ignored his appeals for psychological help even though he had a long history of mental illness.

"No one was listening to me," the bearded and heavily tattooed detainee told the court. "I made several appeals for help, saying I was a man capable of being dangerous. I took action, and then they took me seriously."

Prison warder Sandrine Flao testified that Cocaign and Baudry had specifically asked to be in the same cell, even though that would mean that they would have to share with a third inmate.

"When the inmates don't mind sharing with two others we don't object because we can save space," said Flao.

The prison director, Yves Bidet, was to take the witness stand after a coroner confirmed the circumstances of Baudry's death by multiple stab wounds and strangulation.

"Everything that Nicolas Cocaign said has been confirmed by our observations and the autopsy," said chief coroner Pierre Bohers.

The Baudry family lawyer suggested that conditions at the Rouen jail were also to blame for the gruesome murder.

Cocaign allegedly committed the crime following a dispute with Baudry whom he accused of plugging up the toilet with rolls of paper.

Three men shared the small cell where the murder took place and severe overcrowding has been regularly cited as a problem in French jails.

"How was it bearable for three people to share a cell of 11 square metres?" said lawyer Etienne Noel, representing the Baudry family.

The cannibal trial opened a week after a separate tribunal ruled in favour of 38 inmates and former inmates who complained of degrading conditions at the Rouen jail, which opened in 1864.

The administrative court ordered the French state to pay compensation of between 350 and 17,500 euros (430 to 21,500 dollars) to the plaintiffs after finding that most of the cells did not have proper sanitation nor ventilation.

With one of the highest suicide rates in Europe, French prisons are also regularly criticised by the Strasbourg-based European court of human rights for failing to provide basic needs.

Mental health experts are to testify during the trial this week as to whether Cocaign was sufficiently sane to face criminal charge for his acts. A verdict is expected on Thursday.

The court on Monday heard that Cocaign was abandoned by his 21-year-old homeless mother and cared for by the state until he was adopted aged three. From the age of six he was already under the care of a psychologist.

Reports from his childhood suggest he had difficulty telling right from wrong and his mental difficulties worsened when he was allegedly raped, aged 13. After this he developed "violent sexual compulsions".

He was convicted of drug possession when he was 22 and later hospitalised on several occasions with mental illness. He complained to the court that he was not given drug treatment after release, despite asking for it.

"My compulsions were still there, so ..." he said.

Cocaign was serving time for several rape convictions and other violent offences.

© 2010 AFP

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