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French officials on trial in AIDS deaths; Ex-prime minister among accused after decision to bar sale of HIV test kits


PARIS -- This week, the curtain will rise on a spectacle without precedent in French history: a former prime minister on trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter.

It is a day for which Edmond-Luc Henry, 49, and other hemophiliacs in France who carry the AIDS virus have waited for more than a decade.

Once the "Wunderkind" of the Socialist Party, Laurent Fabius, 52 -- or someone else in the government that he headed from 1984 to 1986 -- blocked the sale of an AIDS virus detection test manufactured by Abbott Laboratories, an American firm, so that a French competitor wouldn't be shut out of the market.

That was on May 9, 1985. On Aug. 1 of that year, after the French laboratory Diagnostics Pasteur put the final touches on its own test, the Fabius government decided to require testing of all donated blood for AIDS. By then, however, hundreds of hemophiliacs and people receiving transfusions had been given blood or blood products contaminated with the AIDS virus.

Fabius and his subordinates "gave priority to economic and industrial interests to the detriment of public health," said Henry, president of the French Association of Hemophiliacs who contracted the human immunodeficiency virus, known as HIV, in 1984.

Of France's 2,500 hemophiliacs, who need doses of a blood-based extract to supply clotting agents they lack naturally, an estimated 1,300 developed HIV through blood products supplied by carriers of the virus. More than a quarter of the victims, it is estimated, were infected in 1985. The Fabius government was blocking sale of the Abbott test during part of 1985. Of the infected hemophiliacs, 600 have died.

In March 1988, the first complaints were filed in what quickly grew into one of the greatest public health scandals in French history.

In 1992, four senior public health officials, including the director of the national blood transfusion center, were convicted of knowingly allowing tainted blood to be given to hemophiliacs. They were sentenced to jail terms of up to four years.

Starting tomorrow, the Court of Justice of the Republic, created in 1993 to judge Cabinet ministers for their actions in office, will begin sitting for the first time to determine how much responsibility, if any, belongs to Fabius.

The special court is made up of three professional magistrates and 12 legislators.

Among the lawmakers, conservatives predominate, but there is sympathy for Fabius across the political spectrum.

Also on trial are Fabius' former social affairs minister, Georgina Dufoix, and Edmond Herve, his secretary of state for health.

The former prime minister and his two colleagues are formally accused in the deaths of seven people who received blood containing HIV.

Pub Date: 2/08/99

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