Page last updated at 21:41 GMT, Wednesday, 27 July 2005 22:41 UK

French abuse case victims' 'living hell'

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Angers

Defendant (right) with a police officer
A total of 39 men and 26 women are on trial in Angers

The specially constructed courtroom in Angers was packed as the jury prepared to return its verdict on the 65 defendants.

Many of them were mothers or fathers accused of crimes ranging from the rape and prostitution of their own children to turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse of their sons and daughters.

The jury of nine men and women had heard months of harrowing evidence and video testimony from some of the 45 children, recounting how they were sexually assaulted, raped and prostituted.

The youngest child involved was just six months old, the oldest only 12.

The jury heard many had suffered repeated rape and sexual abuse.

In some cases their sexual services were sold by their parents to other relatives, neighbours or colleagues for small amounts of money, a packet of cigarettes - and even a new car tyre.

Regular victims

The jury also heard of a generational cycle of abuse.

One defendant claimed he was abused by his own father, before he went on to sexually abuse his son.

I can only describe this case as hell - a living hell for these children
Lawyer Alain Fouquet

After serving a prison sentence for it, he went on with the help of his son to abuse his own grandchildren, inviting others to participate.

It is a case that has shocked France, not least because 26 of the accused were women, many of them mothers of the children involved.

The jury spent a week deliberating, sealed off from the media and from any contact with the outside world at a military school.

Late on Wednesday afternoon, after several hours of delay, they returned to deliver their verdict.

Some 1,974 charges were read out by the judge, one by one.

Sixty-two of the 65 defendants were found guilty of crimes ranging from the rape of several children to failing to report the crimes.

Perhaps most harrowing of all, the same victims' names kept coming up again and again.

Two little girls and their brother were raped, assaulted and abused by up to 40 people, including their parents and grandfather.

The worst offenders, the three men at the heart of this trial, were given sentences ranging from 26 to 28 years in prison.

One woman received 10 years imprisonment and another got one year.

'Daddy naughty'

The lawyer who represented the children at the trial said the proceedings had been vital in helping them to overcome the legacy of such repeated abuse.

Began on 3 March
65 people accused of abusing 45 children
25,000 pages of evidence stored on CD-Rom
Prosecution case: 430 pages
Some 250 witnesses
60 lawyers - 51 for the defence, 9 for the prosecution
Trial cost: 5m euros (3.5m)

"For the children, giving their testimony was sometimes a huge conflict of interests," Alain Fouquet said.

"One of my clients who was three and a half years old at the time of the abuse told me: 'My daddy is a very naughty man, who has done bad things and should go to jail.'

"But then a little later she showed me his picture and asked me when her daddy was coming back."

Many of the children watched the proceedings from another room as the verdicts were delivered.

"I hope these children can break that cycle of abuse - and live normal lives," Mr Fouquet told me.

"I can only describe this case as hell - a living hell for these children."

He said he had heard things in court he could not bring himself to repeat.

"These children have been to hell and back."

French shock

France is asking how this could happen in this day and age, in such a civilised country.

Some have been shocked by the discovery of an underclass in their midst. Many of the defendants were illiterate and unemployed. Many of the men and women had been abused as children.

New measures will now be put in place, such as a child protection register and one for sexual offenders, to keep track of paedophiles.

But many in France prefer to think of this as a one-off - a horrifying case that won't be repeated elsewhere.

video and audio news
Hear how the sentences were handed down


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