French lawyers strike over justice bill

11th February 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Feb 11 (AFP) - French lawyers went on strike on Wednesday as the parliament prepared to enact a new criminal justice law that many feared would undermine civil liberties by strengthening police powers, lengthening detention periods and introducing plea bargaining.

PARIS, Feb 11 (AFP) - French lawyers went on strike on Wednesday as the parliament prepared to enact a new criminal justice law that many feared would undermine civil liberties by strengthening police powers, lengthening detention periods and introducing plea bargaining.

The final vote on the controversial legislation, dubbed "the Perben law 2" after its author Justice Minister Dominique Perben, was due later on Wednesday and was certain to be carried because of the ruling UMP party's majority.Perben, who sees the law as a follow-up to his first major reform of France's justice system, introduced in 2002, was to hold a news conference afterwards.

The government has presented the new law as a necessary tool for fighting organised crime.

Its main provisions introduce the idea of plea bargaining - the US-style mechanism by which a defendant can plead guilty to receive a reduced sentence - and extends the period under which a suspect can be held without access to a lawyer from 36 hours to 48.

It also gives police beefed-up powers, notably in terms of tapping telephones and other forms of surveillance in private homes.

Government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope said the measures were "only aimed at fighting crime and criminal organisations" and would be limited to stop them being applied against more run-of-the-mill lawbreakers.

But France's 40,000 lawyers view the law as a "big brother" reform that threatens the rights of defendants and undermines their role and that of judges.

Their strike on Wednesday was only the third in their profession's history since the end of World War II.

More than 150 lawyers laid a symbolic wreath at the law courts in the eastern city of Strasbourg - home to the European Court of Human Rights - "in homage of the now-defunct presumption of innocence".

Several hundred others gathered outside the parliamentary building in Paris in their traditional black gowns to urge a vote against the law before laying their own wreath.

The Socialist opposition in parliament has vowed to take the bill before the constitutional council, which rules on whether laws conform with the country's 1958 constitution. The challenge is likely to focus on the "guilty plea" clause, seen as a possible breach of the right to a fair trial.

The pro-government Le Figaro newspaper highlighted the "ambitious and controversial" law as a blow to organised crime that brought France's criminal justice system closer to those of other European Union countries. Britain, it noted, allowed suspects to be held without consulting a lawyer for up to 96 hours.

But the more left-leaning papers criticised the new powers as overreaching and poured scorn on the United States experience of plea-bargaining.

The government, the Liberation daily said, "has crossed the line of civil liberties in the name of security which was not that lacking".

© AFP

                                                              Subject: France news

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