French Judges Revolt, Shut Down Courthouses

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PARIS (AP) - The teenage waitress disappeared one night after her shift. After a police hunt that gripped France, her severed limbs and head were found in the waters of an abandoned quarry.

The suspect, 31 and recently out of prison, already had 15 convictions on his record. But did President Nicolas Sarkozy go too far by branding him a "monster?" Is the suspect "presumed guilty," as Sarkozy said, and not presumed innocent before trial? And did judges and police deserve blame for failing to prevent the crime?

The unpopular French president's incautious comments about the suspect, and his complaints of incompetence in the legal system, have sparked a revolt among judges, prosecutors and lawyers. Protesting magistrates have shut down almost all the country's courthouses this week, with courts hearing only urgent cases.

Judges wearing traditional long black or red robes demonstrated Thursday in cities throughout France, with the main march in the western city of Nantes, near the crime scene, where some 2,000 protesters streamed across the Loire River.

In response to the anger, Sarkozy said he is ordering the justice minister to hold consultations with magistrates to find out "what is not working."

But Sarkozy, speaking on national television Thursday night, repeated harsh language about the suspect in the slaying, and expressed little patience for the magistrates' methods. "The answer cannot be, 'We're going on strike.'"

Sarkozy has been in a long standoff with the country's magistrates, who have often accused him of meddling in the judicial system and planning reforms that threaten their independence.

This time, the judges are backed by several unions of police - who are traditionally supportive of conservative Sarkozy, a former interior minister.

Officials have filed preliminary charges against suspect Tony Meilhon for the "kidnapping followed by death" of Laetitia Perrais, an 18-year-old waitress who disappeared Jan. 19 after her restaurant shift in Pornic, in western France. Investigators are still probing the case, and no homicide charges have been filed.

Critics say Sarkozy took advantage of the grisly case to burnish his tough-on-crime image ahead of 2012 presidential elections, in which he is widely expected to seek a second term.

"It's an old habit of his, using people's legitimate feelings of outrage ... for ends that are clearly electoral and demagogical," Nicolas Leger, national secretary of the USM magistrates union, told The Associated Press.

Meilhon has declined the services of a lawyer. In questioning soon after his arrest, he said Perrais died in a road accident, prosecutors said.

Meilhon, who has been convicted for 15 crimes ranging from theft to rape and has spent a decade behind bars, was released from prison in February 2010. His name appears on a French list of sex offenders and people with convictions for violent crimes, according to a Justice Ministry statement. He was required to register his address with police.

But Meilhon was never assigned to a probation office, which the Justice Ministry called a case of "dysfunction."

Sarkozy - whose blunt language sometimes shocks the French, accustomed to flowery diplomatic talk from their leaders - went further.

"When you let someone out of prison such as this individual who is presumed guilty, without ensuring that he will be seen by a probation officer, that is a mistake," Sarkozy said Feb. 3. "The people who covered up or let this mistake happen will be sanctioned. Those are the rules."

He added: "Our duty is to protect society from these monsters."

Critics complained that Sarkozy had convicted Meilhon without a trial.

Michel-Antoine Thiers, of police union SNOP, said simply: "His comments shocked us."

French magistrates and police say it is the government's right to probe whether anything went wrong in Meilhon's case, but they are angry he promised sanctions even before investigating.

In an unusual statement, the judges on France's highest court, the Court of Cassation, scolded Sarkozy without mentioning him by name. They said they were "deeply concerned about the recent reactions and declarations" placing blame on magistrates.

Judges nationwide also complain of small budgets and a lack of staff.

The three sentencing judges assigned to the Nantes court that handled Meilhon's case shared 4,000 cases between them, the USM magistrates' union said. It also pointed to a 2010 Council of Europe study on countries' percent of gross domestic product spent per inhabitant on the justice system: France came in at No. 37 out of 43, behind Azerbaijan and Armenia.

In the Nantes march Thursday, the slain waitress' adoptive father, Gilles Patron, appealed to the magistrates "to not release repeat sex offenders."

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Pierre-Antoine Souchard in Nantes contributed to this report.
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