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French lawyers strike Wednesday over new law

PARIS, Feb 10 (AFP) – Lawyers in France were to stage a one-day strike on Wednesday to protest against a criminal justice law which they say gives unwarranted new powers to police and the state prosecution service and is an assault on the presumption of innocence.

Dubbed “Perben 2” after Justice Minister Dominique Perben who introduced a first judicial reform in 2002, the law extends the period in which a serious crime suspect can be held before being presented to a judge from two days to four, with a lawyer allowed after 48 hours instead of 36.

It also introduces for the first time into French law the notion of a guilty plea – a measure designed to cut the massive backlog in minor cases clogging the courts but which critics say reduces the role of judges to bit-players in the administration of justice.

France’s 40,000 lawyers go on national strike for only the third time since World War II on the day that the bill is adopted by the centre-right majority in parliament.

Joined by some magistrates, they plan to hold demonstrations outside law courts around the country and disrupt judicial proceedings.

The presidents of the country’s 180 bar councils were also to protest outside the National Assembly in Paris.

“It is not normal for lawyers to demonstrate because we are not unionised – but the measures contained in this law mark a profound change in our penal procedure,” said Jean-Marie Burguburu of the Paris bar council in a letter to President Jacques Chirac.

Opponents say that though the bill’s toughest provisions – such as the longer detention periods and the right to place hidden recording devices in private homes – are aimed only at those suspected of “organised crime,” this concept remains ill-defined so petty criminals will be targetted as well.

They also believe that the guilty plea process – in which the state prosecutor and a suspect bargain over a lesser sentence – will create a two-tier justice system, with the poor tempted to avoid the inconvenience and expense of a full legal defence.

“The law takes every element of the penal process and modifies it to the exclusive advantage of the prosecuting party,” said Robert Badinter, the former Socialist justice minister who abolished the death penalty in France.

“There is a ‘Big Brother’ side to these measures … if they are possible for a major criminal, they can become so too for anyone else. Who will be the judge? We are heading towards the idea that what is secret or intimate is an affront to the public forces,” said Jean-Yves Le Borgne, president of the Association of Penal Lawyers (ADAP).

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 was likely to focus on the “guilty plea” clause, seen as a possible breach of the right to a fair trial.

Wednesday’s protests come as Chirac is engaged in another confrontation with the judicial system, after the conviction for illegal party funding of his protege former prime minister Alain Juppe ten days ago.

Critics say the way Chirac and other leaders of the centre-right lavished praise on Juppe after he was found guilty showed their double-standards: running a tough law-and-order campaign on the one hand, and then seeking to undermine a court decision against a political ally.

Magistrates’ organisations also accused Chirac of exceeding his powers when he ordered a presidential enquiry into claims that the judges who sentenced Juppe were bugged. They said only the justice system has the right to investigate itself.


                                                              Subject: France news