France's `terror' judges: a new breed of risk-takers
Paris — NOT everyone has a taste for this sort of thing,'' says Jean-Claude Vuillemin, a Paris judge. Not everyone indeed. Mr. Vuillemin carries a gun with him and never goes out alone. He and his family are surrounded by bodyguards. He varies his daily itinerary. He keeps his movements, address, and phone number secret.
Vuillemin is one of a new breed of ``terror judges,'' investigating magistrates who specialize in understanding the minds and motivations of terrorists.
Until 1981, terrorist trials in France were judged by a special state security court, composed of judges and military officers, and held behind closed doors. When the Socialist government came to power, they abolished this special court as antidemocratic and tried terrorists by jury. That system worked well until this past December, when R'egis Schleicher, a leader of the French extremist group Direct Action, terrified the jurors at his trial with death threats. Shortly afterward, the government decided to try terrorists with a panel of seven judges chosen on a case-by-case basis. The panel recently tried, convicted, and sentenced Lebanese Georges Ibrahim Abdallah to a life term for terrorism.
The 1980s have posed other challenges in the fight against terrorism. As the number of terrorist incidents increased and as more groups cooperated with each other in Europe and the Middle East, tracking them down became more complex and more urgent. The French have concentrated terror investigations in Paris to facilitate cooperation on different cases, and created a new terrorism section in the public prosecutor's office. They have also created a permanent corps of investigative magistrates who deal solely with terror cases.
Five magistrates based in Paris now control among them most of the investigations of terrorist groups that beset France today.
These include Direct Action, the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Faction (led by Mr. Abdallah), and the Committee for Solidarity With Arab Political Prisoners, which claimed responsibility for a wave of bombings in Paris last fall.
Like special prosecutors in the US, these judges have considerable power to subpoena witnesses and to conduct police investigations. They travel extensively, consulting with other police and intelligence services. Their job also demands the skills of a master detective.
``With ordinary crime, you don't have to know the whole culture surrounding it,'' says Vuillemin, a magistrate in charge of investigating recent assassinations by Direct Action. ``With terrorists you have to know how their network works, who each personality is, their history, their international links.''
Jean-Louis Brougui`ere, another terror judge, has earned the sobriquets ``Monsieur Terrorisme'' and ``the Cowboy'' from his colleagues, for his energetic, enthusiastic pursuit of his calling.
``Some people do it as a duty,'' one judge remarks. ``He does it for pleasure.''
Solitary and secretive, Mr. Brougui`ere has traveled all over Europe and even to North Africa to follow up leads on terrorist networks, sometimes provoking minor diplomatic incidents. He has pressed the Greeks to extradite prisoners, badgered the Austrians to let him interrogate suspects, and convoked presidential aides to his chambers to testify.
Brougui`ere clearly has a taste for taking risks. Before becoming a terror judge he specialized in criminal law, and his favorite sport is stunt flying.
As terror judges have become more assertive, the dangers have increased. Last month, Brougui`ere narrowly escaped death when a policeman detected a primed fragmentation grenade attached to a nylon tripwire outside his apartment door.
Police believe that the grenade was put there by Max Frerot, a member of Direct Action who is still at large.
The goals of the judiciary do not always coincide with those of the French government. When the panel of seven French judges sentenced Abdallah to life imprisonment, they defied the state prosecutor's plea for a more lenient 10-year sentence.
The public was apparently behind the decision of the judges - a recent poll said over 78 percent of Frenchmen approve of the Abdallah verdict, in spite of the threat of terrorist reprisals.
In the past, the French judiciary has often submitted to government pressure to give lenient sentences to terrorists, the payoff of secret deals designed to prevent future attacks. That seemed evident during Abdallah's 1986 trial in Lyon, when he got a light four-year sentence instead of the expected 10 years.
The Abdallah trial, many observers think, may be a sign that French judges have had enough. ``They said, we are the judiciary, we have a decision to take, and it's not our business to mix with politics,'' says Jean-Marc Th'eolleyre, a journalist with the daily Le Monde who covered the trial.