French AIDS Trial Concludes in Acquittals and Stalemate

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In the end, the verdict was as ambiguous and frustrating as the case. Former French health secretary Edmond Hervé's conviction on manslaughter charges in the long-running tainted-blood case was tempered by a suspended sentence, on the grounds that he had already been punished enough over the five years of the trial. Former prime minister Laurent Fabius and former social affairs minister Georgina Dufoix were acquitted for their involvement in the scandal, in which some 4,400 individuals were infected with HIV from tainted blood productsin 1985; 40 percent of those people have already died. A not guilty verdict had been anticipated, according to TIME correspondent Bruce Crumley, "although Hervé was expected to be publicly blamed, because he had legal control of the health administration and should have been the most hands-on of all officials involved." But rarely has bureaucratic inertia had such terrible consequences. "When you realize the horror of what occurred, it's hard to see nobody paying for it," says Crumley. "But the experts say they simply didn't know much about AIDS back then."

Indeed, rather than dwell on conspiracy, the verdict simply followed the bureacratic chain of command. The jury dimissed allegations that Fabius had delayed compulsory blood screening so as to favor a blood test manufactured by French company, and focused on where the buck stopped -- Hervé's failure to stop the distribution of untreated blood supplies when their connection to AIDS was known. Perhaps the trial's most important legacy will be that the traditional French deference to elites has been shaken a bit, says Crumley. "This case has set a precedent to make people more willing to take politicians to task for their actions. In the U.S. two of them would have been in prison, and Fabius's career would be over."