French judge rapped over child sex trial fiasco

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A French judge who presided over one of the country's biggest legal fiascos, in which 13 people were wrongly imprisoned on paedophilia charges, was given an official reprimand on Friday.

PARIS, April 24, 2009 (AFP) - A French judge who presided over one of the country's biggest legal fiascos, in which 13 people were wrongly imprisoned on paedophilia charges, was given an official reprimand on Friday.

But Fabrice Burgaud, who headed the investigation into the so-called Outreau affair, was given the lightest possible sanction by France's Higher Magistrates Council -- sparking accusations he had been "let off lightly."

The case began in 2001 with the arrest of a couple accused of abusing their son in the northern French town of Outreau, with neighbours and acquaintances soon accused of taking part in an elaborate sex ring.

Two couples were convicted but 13 others were acquitted, in 2004 and 2005, after spending up to three years in jail. Marriages were broken, jobs lost and children taken into custody. A 14th person committed suicide.

President Jacques Chirac apologised at the time for what he described as an "unprecedented judicial disaster."

The magistrates' council said it had found evidence of "oversights, clumsiness" and a "lack of rigour" in Burgaud's investigation, saying he had failed in his duties as a judge.

It faulted the young magistrate, who was 30 when he took charge of the probe, for failing to spot "blatant inconsistencies" in testimony provided by children, which provided the backbone of the case.

But it also said it took Burgaud's youth and the "exceptional difficulty" of the case into account and pointed out that his superiors failed to intervene.

Alain Marecaux, one of those acquitted in the case, said he was unhappy with the outcome.

"He is the main person responsible for an unprecedented legal fiasco -- I think he has been let off pretty lightly," he said.

"But I am not disappointed. Punishing Fabrice Burgaud more severely would not have given back what he took from me. That man ruined part of my life."

But France's magistrates' union charged that Burgaud -- the only person to have been sanctioned in the case -- was an "ideal scapegoat" for wider failings in the judicial system.

The Outreau affair sparked a parliamentary inquiry and a drive to reform the French justice system to prevent similar miscarriages.

Burgaud insisted during the inquiry in 2006 he was acutely aware of the victims' suffering, but insisted he had done his job dutifully and that other magistrates had rubber-stamped his decisions.

AFP / Expatica

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