defense attorney truths

Daniel Soulez Larivière, lawyer for the Grande Paroisse company (a subsidiary of Total) which operated the AZF factory in Toulouse, and its former director, has just published “Anatomy of a judicial fiasco” with Albin Michel. In his book, he denounces “the dysfunctions” in the judicial treatment of the case. Interview.

Daniel Soulez Larivière was the defense lawyer during the trial of the AZF disaster in Toulouse © Catherine Caron

Daniel Soulez Larivière, why did you write this book on the AZF affair? And above all, why publish it a few days before the 21st anniversary of the explosion?

This is my fifteenth book. I have been writing about justice and how it works for 40 years. Having been in the legal battle for 20 years, I’ve seen all the flaws in the process, so it was only natural to write a book about it. As for the release date, it is a coincidence. It was not intentional at all. It took me three years to write “Anatomy of a Judicial Fiasco”. And the editing deadlines are such that it fell on September 15.

Aren’t you afraid of the reaction of victims to reading your book?

The fact of writing a book did not really shock. The victims themselves wrote about it. Everyone has the right to write. Writing a book has never been anything more than an attempt to research and improve society. I think it can be useful to prevent such an event from happening again. I don’t think it rekindles the pain any more than the books of the victims themselves. No one has ever criticized, myself included, the fact that certain victims have produced books. I find that very good.

Writing a book has never been anything more than an attempt to research and improve society.

A case that occupied 20 years of his life

How did you get involved in the AZF affair?

On the day of the disaster, the legal director of Total, Alain-Marc Irissou, whom I knew during aeronautical affairs, telephoned me to say to me: “You know what happened this morning. A lawyer should go to the scene tomorrow to see what’s going on. So I asked my friend Jacques Monferran, a lawyer in Toulouse, to go there. Things then fell into place. There was the indictment of 13 employees of the company. My firm and three of my associates started defending them. I managed all of this and found myself the orchestra conductor of the entire defence: Grande Paroisse, owner of the factory, and Mr. Biechlin, director of AZF.

AZF was an important business for you?

It was very exciting. This job is interesting when you work a lot and in this case it was the case. I had meetings every three weeks to take stock of the research and investigations. It kept me busy, almost part-time for 20 years. The seriousness of the case also marked me. It is the most serious industrial accident since the war. The very nature of a business, when it is of this importance, requires passion and investment. It is our job and our duty to do so. This case also calls into question very interesting French legal mechanisms. This shows flaws in our judicial system, which lacks modesty and rigor.

Dysfunctions in the AZF case

Indeed, you denounce many dysfunctions in the AZF affair, such as the orientation of the investigation. Why ?

The public prosecutor said, after three days, that it was a 90 or 99% accident. This directed the entire investigation into the accident and eliminated the attack. You can’t start a legal case like this. Jacques Chirac (then President of the Republic, editor’s note) and Lionel Jospin (Prime Minister at the time) decided to calm things down, very legitimately, and to qualify the hypotheses. Recall that the explosion took place only 10 days after the attack on the World Trade Center. Unfortunately, the prosecutor took a position which prevented the search for the possible existence of an attack. I’m not saying it was an attack at all, but it was one of the possibilities to be explored. Except that it hasn’t really been studied. In the end, we still don’t know.

I’m not saying it was an attack at all, but it was one of the possibilities to be explored

Precisely, in your book, you quote an article from Charlie Hebdo, titled: “Everything exploded, except the truth”. Is that what you think?

We actually did not find the truth. The Toulouse court took note of this. He said it was possible that it was an attack and that it was probable that it was a chemical accident, but we have no proof. However, without proof, it is the release. We are not here to invent things. This is what the Toulouse court recorded with the release. But this was not accepted by the system and there was therefore an appeal from the prosecution which condemned Grande Paroisse and Serge Biechlin. Appeal quashed for lack of impartiality. In a second appeal trial, the Paris Court of Appeal upheld the conviction while reducing the sentence. But, for my part, the arguments of the court do not hold.

That’s to say ?

The Paris Court of Appeal held very regrettable sophisticated reasoning. She condemned on guesswork. Indeed, she advanced: “For there to be an explosion, it would have been necessary to prove the presence of chlorine. However, this substance was never observed on the spot. For good reason, the floor would have been washed. Logically, this proves that there was something, and that something could very well have been chlorine. With that, you send all the people you don’t like to the stake. This is a deplorable stoppage.

He continues to seek the causes of this drama

Would a reopening of the file be possible today?

I don’t think it’s possible to repeat an instruction, unless someone says, “I’m the one who put a detonator in the pile of nitrate!” But we would have found him by now.

Thus, continue to seek the causes of this tragedy, all those who were interested in this affair, or who were the protagonists, like Serge Biechlin. The problem remains that we are always faced with hypotheses and not proofs. You have to accept to mourn. We can’t find evidence because it’s gone or erased.

Continue to seek the causes of this tragedy, all those who are interested in this case

Aside from AZF, have you had other cases that marked you so much during your career?

I started with a miscarriage of justice at 29 years old. An agent of the External Documentation and Counterintelligence Service (SDECE), the former Directorate General for External Security (DGSE), was convicted of treason. I was convinced it was a miscarriage of justice and we ended up being right. My friend Gilles Perrault, a French journalist, writer and screenwriter, wrote a book on the subject called “Erreur”. In it, he explained that it was an aberrant conviction. Finally, six months after the publication of his book, President Pompidou pardoned the agent sentenced to 15 years in prison. He left after a year. I had therefore already had complex cases before AZF.

Anatomy of a judicial fiasco

Criminal law is a law that is strictly interpreted. This is a pillar of our democracy.(excerpt from the acquittal judgment pronounced by the Toulouse court in 2009)

On September 21, 2001, ten days after the attack on the World Trade Center, the explosion of the AZF factory in Toulouse killed 31 people, injured hundreds and caused considerable damage. The biggest industrial disaster since the war.

We will never know why, because any effective search for the causes has been made impossible.

Daniel Soulez Larivière, who was the lawyer for the company and its director, describes the incredible dysfunctions in the judicial treatment of this tragedy, which led to their conviction on appeal in 2017, when at first instance the judges had pronounced acquittal for lack of evidence. As if it was necessary at all costs to make them guilty.

Should justice seek the truth or condemn to provide an outlet?

By shedding light on the excesses of the system that contribute to citizens’ distrust, the author invites us to reflect on the future of our justice system.

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