French magistrates protest against Sarkozy

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French magistrates staged an unprecedented strike on Thursday, accusing President Nicolas Sarkozy of stepping out of line by criticising their conduct in an ongoing murder inquiry.

Hundreds of magistrates, lawyers and clerks in red and black robes massed outside courthouses across France, including 2,000 who marched in the western town of Nantes, the jurisdiction targeted by Sarkozy's comments last week.

Some waved banners reading "Justice in danger" and others wore signs around their necks reading "Presumed guilty."

The protest stemmed from the case of an 18-year-old woman named as Laetitia, who was found strangled and dismembered and dumped in a pool in a disused quarry near Pornic, west of Nantes.

A 31-year-old man, Tony Meilhon, was arrested, suspected of killing her. It emerged that he had 15 previous convictions and was on probation after being released from prison in February 2010.

"There have been a certain number of malfunctions in the judiciary and the police," Sarkozy said on February 3, referring to the Laetitia case.

"When you let someone like this suspect out of prison without ensuring he will be monitored by a counsellor, it is a fault," he said. "Those who covered up or let this fault be committed will be punished."

Members of the judiciary reacted furiously, accusing Sarkozy of pre-judging the case and undermining their independence, and said they had long been warning that they struggled due to underfunding.

Unions said protests were planned in dozens of other towns. Sarkozy was expected to comment on the controversy in a televised interview on Thursday evening.

© 2011 AFP

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