By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 12:25 PM
PARIS - The French supreme court ruled Tuesday that police can no longer interrogate terrorism suspects without a lawyer present, undercutting a potent weapon in France's no-holds-barred battle to prevent attacks by Islamic jihadists.
The ruling, by the Cassation Court, the country's highest tribunal, was the second blow in a little more than two months against a tradition here of grilling suspects for long periods in the hope of squeezing out a confession. It went against the tide of President Nicolas Sarkozy's law-and-order approach to crime and, in particular, to Islamic terrorism.
The tradition, dating from the days of absolute monarchy, had set France's judiciary apart not only from the British and U.S. legal systems, but also from those of neighboring countries such as Spain and Italy. Defense lawyers and France's National Bar Council had waged a long campaign to end what they called a chink in the armor of French human rights protections.
The issue became particularly pressing as the number of people arrested and interrogated in France more than doubled over the past decade, reaching almost 800,000 in 2009, partly in response to Sarkozy's security crackdown, first as interior minister and now as president.
The Constitutional Council, which interprets the French Constitution, had handed down a ruling July 30 that said ordinary suspects must be accompanied by a lawyer from the beginning of an investigation. But it allowed an exception for people suspected of engaging in terrorism, drug trafficking or organized crime, citing their particular danger to society.
The Cassation Court, basing its decision Tuesday on European Union civil rights guarantees, said that exception is not justified unless there are "imperious reasons," such as, presumably, ticking-bomb situations. It gave the Justice Ministry until July to put the ruling into effect, casting doubt on the outcome of a number of serious criminal cases that are before the courts but might not be tried before July.
The Justice Ministry, which had prepared a major reform of French arrest rules based on the July 30 decision, will now be forced to pull its proposed legislation back and incorporate Tuesday's ruling to extend the full right of counsel to terrorism suspects as well as to ordinary suspects, legal commentators predicted.
Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie's office said she will "take these decisions into account" by offering amendments to the reform bill before parliament.
Traditionally, French police have been able to hold most suspects without bringing formal charges or notifying them of their right to counsel for 24 hours, easily extended to 48 hours, during which they could use strenuous interrogation techniques without defense lawyers to hold them in check. For terrorism suspects, the interrogation could run for 72 hours without a lawyer and up to 96 hours once counsel had been brought in.
That power has been a key tool in the arsenal of the Central Directorate of Internal Intelligence, France's main counterterrorism body. According to terrorism specialists, counterterrorist police have frequently rounded up Islamic activists, questioned them roughly and threatened their family members with visa annulments in an effort to gain information or recruit informants. All those practices are likely to become more difficult with defense lawyers present.