Ex-French leaders go on trial in AIDS blood scandal; Former officials accused of putting economics first


PARIS -- Former prime minister, Laurent Fabius, 52, and two members of his 1984-1986 government went on trial yesterday, charged with manslaughter -- in short with worrying while in office more about commerce than the risks of the then-mysterious illness called AIDS.

The former Socialist officials, whose political careers have been damaged or ruined because of the scandal, are on trial because blood and blood-based products contaminated with the AIDS virus were transfused into seven people in 1985. Five are now dead .

In 1985, according to the prosecution, the government headed by Fabius delayed requiring mandatory AIDS testing of donated blood so France's Pasteur Institute could develop a rival to the test marketed by Abbott Laboratories, a U.S. company.

The potential market was nearly $2 billion, the French National Hemophiliacs Association has calculated. French authorities were "blinded" by "national economic interests," the charges filed against Fabius, Edmond Herve and Georgina Dufoix claim.

Yesterday, victims and relatives of the deceased were given 40 minutes to state their case as the trial began in a central Paris building usually used for diplomatic gatherings. The trial is unparalleled in postwar France.

The Court of Justice of the Republic, created in 1993 to judge ministers for crimes allegedly committed while in office, is meeting for the first time to try Fabius, who now is speaker of the lower house of France's parliament; Herve, the former secretary of state for health, and Dufoix, who was minister for social services. The court actually is a tribunal made up of a dozen members of parliament and three magistrates.

The trial, which should last three weeks, is a landmark in making government officials in France, who often conduct themselves like a law unto themselves, more accountable. If found guilty, the defendants could be sentenced to five years in prison.

The accused steadfastly maintain their innocence, contending they acted on the best but ultimately erroneous scientific data of the time, when AIDS still seemed a "gay plague" or a disease affecting only isolated at-risk groups such as drug addicts. The link between infected blood and transmission of the disease, they contend, wasn't yet definite.

At least a thousand people who were infected by blood transfusions under government auspices, many of them hemophiliacs, have died.

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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