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A case of French justice – a window on the nation

The burglary defendant hauled his loot in a taxi, the defense attorney wore slippers, and the judge deemed the victims guilty by reason of naiveté.

By Susan SachsCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 31, 2008

john kehe - staff

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Paris

The trial of the serial burglar unfolded in a wood-paneled courtroom under a massive 18th-century crystal chandelier.

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The lawyers wore black robes and ermine-tipped ties. Stylized Phrygian hats, olive wreaths, swords, and scales danced in frescoes across the ceiling. Above the raised judges' podium, an enormous oval oil painting portrayed a square-jawed woman sitting in judgment, one hand resting on the hilt of her sword.

For those whose apartments had been burgled, 14 of us robbed by the same man in a period of just six weeks, the effect was both daunting and reassuring. Everything seemed to announce Tradition and Justice. The trial itself would surely be formal, mannered, and businesslike.

But a courtroom is a microcosm of the society it serves. And the trial of accused thief Radouane Aidour Dahib could be seen as a reflection, perhaps a caricature, of France. Like much of daily life here, it was delayed by public transit strikes, governed by ancient procedural rules, distracted by philosophical debates, and shot through with a streak of rebellion. In the end, everybody, including the victims, was assessed a share of guilt.

Mr. Dahib was a tall man of 31 with an extraordinarily narrow face and a criminal record dating back to his teens. Born in Morocco but raised in central France, he'd been unemployed nearly all his adult life. When the police arrested him for his latest string of burglaries, in the fall of 2006, he confessed to the crimes. So the trial, only vaguely structured like an American criminal trial, was focused on what punishment to mete out and whether extenuating circumstances should be taken into account.

The defendant set the tone from the start: "It wasn't me," he said, after the investigative report on his burglaries and his personal history was read out in court. "It was the drugs, the cocaine, the hashish, the alcohol I was consuming. It was my illness."

He then turned to me, the only one of his victims present in the courtroom. "I'm sick," he said. "It wasn't personal."

But it did feel personal. And I felt unsympathetic and briefly stared at him. He smiled back, like a naughty child appealing for forgiveness.

As a civil plaintiff claiming damages, I'd been asked to come forward and sit at the front of the courtroom, a position that made me the third point of a triangle with the defendant and judges (one who presented the details of the case and the other who presided over the proceedings). It was clear, given Dahib's admitted drug habit, that the chances of recovering my stolen computer, jewelry, suitcase, and stereo were nil. The idea that he suffered from "a social disease," as in the song from "West Side Story," left me cold.

The French criminal system, like those everywhere in the world, is overburdened. Crime and punishment are perennial political flash points. President Nicolas Sarkozy, once France's Interior Minister, won election last year on a law-and-order platform. His first successful reform was to institute mandatory sentences for repeat criminals. Mr. Sarkozy's promises to get tough on crime hung heavy over the courtroom. Dahib had already spent more than a year in pretrial detention at the Fleury-Mérogis prison outside Paris, the biggest in Europe. European Union human rights commissioners have called the French jail system one of the most antiquated and crowded on the continent.

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Dahib's judges – there was no jury of peers – had some leeway in sentencing. But if Dahib were to commit another crime in the future, he'd be tried under the tough new law that makes a long prison term compulsory.

"He knows very well that this is his last chance," said the defense attorney, a young man who wore house slippers and bluejeans that peeked out from under his black robe. "He knows that if he commits another crime there's not going to be much we can do for him."

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