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Critics say French reform to protect innocent could muzzle judges

January 22, 1997

PARIS (AP) _ President Jacques Chirac has called for a major review of France’s justice system, aimed in particular at stopping news leaks during criminal investigations and reinforcing the idea that people are innocent until proved guilty.

Justice Minister Jacques Toubon said Wednesday he would act ``with speed and delicacy″ to usher through Chirac’s proposed restraints on coverage of criminal cases, outlined Monday in a televised speech on a package of judicial reforms.

Chirac said a new presidential commission has until July 15 to study ways of giving prosecutors greater independence from politicians while changing the legal system to make presumption of innocence ``better respected.″

The French president says he was scandalized by news reports of corruption investigations involving conservative allies before the allies were charged.

Some investigating magistrates warned, however, that the potential reforms would give the government a chance to cover up a number of politically embarrassing corruption scandals by imposing a news blackout on investigations.

``There’s a risk that they’re just trying to muzzle the prosecutors and the press,″ Catherine Vannier, secretary-general of the Magistrature Union, told The Associated Press. ``Chirac left the door wide open for abuse.″

Vannier said Chirac’s vaguely worded speech could mean the government may try to ban news media from discussing crimes _ including corruption _ during investigations.

Toubon proposed such a ban in October but later dropped it in the face of public criticism.

The debate over judicial reform comes at a time when several members of Chirac’s Gaullist party are being investigated for alleged corruption, even as investigations into others were ordered closed by Toubon and other officials.

Most prominent among them currently is the wife of Paris Mayor Jean Tiberi, a close political ally of Chirac.

Xaviere Tiberi came under formal investigation last month for charges of misappropriating public funds. In the months before that, news reports on the preliminary investigation said she received $37,000 from a regional government for writing a short report that investigating magistrates consider worth less than what she was paid.

Mrs. Tiberi is neither ``accused″ nor ``charged″ with any crime. Such words were banned in a 1993 judicial reform _ also to protect the innocent _ and replaced by the formal investigation phase in the judicial process. The next step is to set a trial date, at which point the person is charged.

Referring to Mrs. Tiberi, Chirac last month called the current judicial system, and the legality of news media discussing the investigation, ``a scandalous situation.″

Defense attorneys, however, have mostly refrained from backing Chirac’s proposals.

``The current system is very good and very quick, and we already have a very good arsenal for protecting″ the presumption of innocence, defense attorney Bernard Prevost said.

Prevost called Chirac’s idea of reform ``hypocritical,″ and suggested it was prompted by politics rather than law.

Chirac’s call for judicial reform comes ahead of spring 1998 legislative elections that polls indicate his governing Gaullist party could lose.

In 1995 and 1996, the Justice Ministry ordered the closure of investigations into alleged misuse of Paris city funds by Tiberi and Premier Alain Juppe. Chirac successfully argued that he had done nothing illegal in a similar case.

Uproar over perceived government interference in the judicial process and calls for reform prompted Chirac to also call for greater ``judiciary independence″ from the government.

But the magistrates worry the reforms could impede their investigations rather than free them from political direction.

``We need the separation of powers,″ Vannier said. ``It’s important for us to break this umbilical cord between the magistrates and the executive power. Until such a rupture, we can’t talk about an independent justice.″

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