Tue, Mar 01, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Members of French child sex ring on trial

CLUB OF PERVERSION 66 men and women members of an extensive child sex ring are being brought to trial for raping and selling children as young as a few months

AFP , ANGERS, FRANCE

The biggest ever criminal trial in modern French history opens this week in the central town of Angers, when a total of 66 men and women face charges for the rape and sexual abuse of children as young as a few months old.

All the judicial records look set to be beaten when the four months of hearings start on Thursday in a specially constructed wooden hall in the town's Palais de Justice. More than 60 lawyers will be taking part, and the 430-page prosecution case will take four clerks three days to read out.

Also attending will be many of the 45 victims of the alleged ring, whose stories are so painful that jury members will have access to a special psychiatric team.

"In this trial the sordid contends with the odious," said Marc Desert, state prosecutor in the case. According to defense lawyer Pascal Rouiller, "some of those who were abused were babies incapable of walking -- still less of making the slightest complaint."

The testimony -- which will be followed by a verdict in June -- will be closely followed by a horrified nation, but doubts have already been raised over whether in so monumental a mass trial justice can really be done to each individual.

Comparisons have also been drawn to one of the most notorious judicial fiascos of recent times -- the so-called Outreau pedophile trial in northern France last year in which 13 people were implicated by the evidence of a woman who later admitted in court that she was lying.

Many of the accused languished for four years in prison -- and one committed suicide -- before being brought to trial in that affair, which also exposed the shortcomings of relying solely on the evidence of the alleged child victims.

Prosecutors in the Angers case are confident the mistakes of Outreau will not be repeated -- they point out that more than half of the 66 accused have admitted their guilt -- but defense lawyers are expected to make full use of the precedent.

"Of course we will exploit Outreau. It would be a professional fault not to," one said.

Details of the allegations against the 39 men and 27 women make appalling reading. All come from the poorest and least educated sections of society, and lived in the Saint-Leonard quarter of what is in the main a pleasant and leafy historic town.

"It was a bit like a slab of plastic explosive. Most of the people involved would have stayed inert were it not for the detonator -- in other words the three or four people who made the whole thing explode," said lawyer Alain Fouquet.

Investigators were alerted to the network when they decided to keep tabs on Eric Joubert, a former convicted sex offender released in 1999 who was supposed to be undergoing a course of psychiatry. He and another former offender Franck Vergondy were the founding members of the club of perversion.

According to the prosecution, between 1999 and 2001 nearly 50 children were raped or abused -- though the overall number could be much higher. The most sickening evidence concerns the way parents allegedly bartered their own children for pathetic sums of money, food parcels and cartons of cigarettes.

"Parents of one kid sold her for a new car tire. That is the atrocious level of barbarity that we've reached," said Philippe Cosnard, a lawyer representing a child protection group at the trial. Another girl of 10 was raped by more than 30 adults.

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