Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Hearing military cases at the Correctional Chamber of the Tribunal of Paris – how French justice deals with military matters

Each month, the 10th Correctional Chamber of the Tribunal of Paris [Tribunal] hears pleadings regarding alleged crimes and offences committed outside France or during “external operations” by or against members of the French armed forces in peacetime. As the Tribunal’s full decisions are not available online, we rely on French journalists who attend hearings to provide articles[1]. The following are translated summaries of their articles pertaining to those cases heard in October and November. The articles also provide background information on how the French justice system has evolved in dealing with military cases.

October Hearings[2]

The first case involved a service member who plead guilty for an “excessive alcoholization” (alcoolisation excessive) while he was deployed in Lebanon. He was sentenced to six months incarceration, suspended, with no criminal record. He confirmed to the Court that he is in the process of solving his alcoholism problem. The judge told him that he is lucky; as the offence is contrary to ordinary criminal law, suspended sentences are available for him.

In the following case, a senior non-commissioned officer and a younger lieutenant had an argument over their unit receiving bad press and media attention. Their unit was linked with a non-profit organization (NPO), in turn linked to a foreign regime generally condemned by the international society. The lieutenant saw a logo associated with the NPO on the NCO’s social media webpage. The lieutenant reported it to his chain of command. Superior officers warned the NCO, who then took revenge on the lieutenant. Pretending he was the young officer, the NCO promised funds to the NPO, requesting receipts to be sent to the lieutenant‘s professional email address. The NCO also made many hidden phone calls to the lieutenant. He was charged with identity theft and malicious phone calls. He was found guilty and sentenced to a fine.

In the next case, a servicewoman was filmed taking her shower by another soldier. The offence took place while they are deployed in Abidjan, in 2021. She confronted him while leaving the military compound’s bathroom, firmly asked him for his cell phone and made him delete the pictures and video of her. “I was afraid he would share them on social media” she later told the Court. She testified as to the negative impact the crime had, and still has on her, in particular on her willingness to be deployed again. Defence counsel plead that the investigation was incomplete. In addition, his client was put in pre-trial custody for 30 days and the bad reputation associated with the file forced him to be released from the forces. Unconvinced, the Court adjourned the case for decision to be rendered later.

The last case in October occurred in Niger in 2020. Three paratroopers were tried for having violently assaulted another paratrooper. Prior to the assault, the soldier informed his chain of command that he wanted to be sent back to France. He disliked the conduct of other servicemen towards the local population. He reported a lack of respect, racist comments, and alcoholic consumption, all reasons for him not to feel safe. The three others perceived his intention to be repatriated to be the equivalent of treason. One night, while the soldier was on guard duty, they put him against a container and beat him up. The Court found the three individuals guilty and sentenced them to between six to eight months of imprisonment, and suspended the sentence.

November Hearings[3]

In July 2021, while deployed in the United Arab Emirates, a chief warrant officer (CWO) returned to his residence, under the influence of alcohol. There he met with two female employees of the building in which he resided. He insistently invited them to his apartment to drink coffee but they were uncomfortable and refused. According to one complainant and other witnesses, the CWO then slapped one of them on the buttocks. In tears, she called security.

Denying everything, the CWO offered a different version of events. He denies having tried to seduce the two young women, saying “… my problem is that I'm too social with people. I just wanted to offer them a cup of coffee so they could drink it in the hall …” as a justification. As for the hand on the buttocks, the CWO explains that he sat on a chair in the building lobby and pushed the receptionist slightly on the back so that she wouldn't crush his foot. According to him, the charge arose due to a cultural misunderstanding and an intent by the complainants to harm his reputation.

In the days following the complaint, the CWO was repatriated. He was later charged with sexual assault and manifest drunkenness. At the trial, his lawyer requested the case to be heard in camera. The Court denied the motion. As for to the sentence, prosecution seeks 10 months imprisonment. Defence counsel argues his client’s unblemished 25 year career.

Unfortunately, based upon the article, it is unclear at the end of the Court’s deliberations whether the CWO is released because he’s found not guilty or because he was found guilty, but his sentenced was suspended.

The last case in November pertains to a young soldier who forgot a cell phone during a military operation in Mali in 2021. An officer found the phone and examined it in order to identify its owner. He found sexual images and texting messages involving underage persons. Promptly, the soldier’s computers are seized, which contain more than 2000 images of underage women and virtual discussions where the soldier asks to have “relations” with a 14-year old “young person”. As a defence, the individual explained that it was only fantasy, and that he had no intention of doing it. Unconvinced, the Court finds him guilty and sentences him to 12 months imprisonment, suspended.

Military Justice in France – Some Background Information on its Recent Evolution

For more than 40 years, the French military justice system has gone through a process where military courts have gradually given way to ordinary courts in dealing with military matters, while at the same time those courts have developed a particular expertise, having recently taken the step to attach specialized service personnel to the courts.

In 1982 the permanent peacetime courts for the armed forces (tribunaux permanents des forces armées or TPFA) were abolished[4] except two, one in Paris and one in Germany, dealing with offences committed when forces are stationed abroad or deployed in operations. Those two TPFAs were succeeded in 1999-2000 by the Paris Armed Forces Tribunal (Tribunal aux armées de Paris or TAP)[5]. In peacetime, the TAP dealt with offences committed abroad by service members or where those are alleged victims. It was abolished in 2011 and its jurisdiction transferred on January 1st, 2012, to a correctional chamber of the Tribunal of Paris[6]. In France, eight other ordinary courts, specialized chambers, deal with military matters, although they do not have jurisdiction over offences committed outside national territory[7].

In 2013, the possibility for a private individual (partie civile) to initiate prosecution[8] was removed and the process was limited only to public prosecution for:

“[Translation] acts committed in the performance of his or her mission by a member of the armed forces engaged in operation mobilizing military capabilities, taking place outside French territory or territorial waters, whatever its purpose, duration or scope, including the release of hostages, the evacuation of nationals or policing on the high seas[9].”

That change was mainly in reaction to the legal proceedings following the Uzbin Valley Ambush (2008). In that tragic event, ten service members were killed, which prompted their families to initiate prosecution against what they perceived as criminal negligence by the chain of command. In 2012, the Cour de Cassation – the French apex court – recognized the rights of the families to initiate prosecution[10]. The French defence establishment perceived the decision as a “risk of judicialization of the battlefield”, a risk that might impede the conduct of military operations.

Presently, specialized service personnel - namely military clerks (officers and non-officers) – are attached to specialized chambers of ordinary courts dealing with military matters. There are also military magistrates who notably serve as liaison officers between the armed forces and the judicial authorities[11].

[1] Gabriel Thierry, of Dalloz actualité; Antoine Blanchet, of actuParis.

[2] Gabriel Thierry, « Agression d’un parachutiste, atteinte à l’intimité dans les douches et vengeance imbécile au bureau : aux audiences correctionnelles de militaires », Dalloz Actualité, October 25, 2023,  <https://www.dalloz-actualite.fr/flash/agression-d-un-parachutiste-atteinte-l-intimite-dans-douches-et-vengeance-imbecile-au-bureau-a>.

[3] Antoine Blanchet, « ‘Vous ternissez l’image du pays’ : au cœur du tribunal dédié aux affaires militaires à Paris », actuParis, November 23, 2023, <https://actu.fr/ile-de-france/paris_75056/vous-ternissez-l-image-du-pays-au-coeur-du-tribunal-dedie-aux-affaires-militaires-a-paris_60363123.html>.

[4] France, Loi n° 82-621 du 21 juillet 1982 relative à relative à l'instruction et au jugement des infractions en matière militaire et de sûreté de l'Etat et modifiant les codes de procédure pénale et de justice militaire, available on https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/.

[5] France, Loi n°99-929 du 10 novembre 1999 portant réforme du code de justice militaire et du code de procédure pénale, available on https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/.

[6] France, LOI n° 2011-1862 du 13 décembre 2011 relative à la répartition des contentieux et à l'allègement de certaines procédures juridictionnelles (1), Chapitre X : Aménagement des compétences juridictionnelles en matière militaire (Articles 32 à 36), available on https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/.

[7] In addition to Paris, those are Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Metz, Rennes, Cayenne, and Toulouse.

[8] France, Code de procédure pénale, art. 698-2, par. 1, in fine, available on https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/.

[9] France, LOI n° 2013-1168 du 18 décembre 2013 relative à la programmation militaire pour les années 2014 à 2019 et portant diverses dispositions concernant la défense et la sécurité nationale, art. 30, adding par. 2 to Code de procédure pénale, art. 698-2, available on https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/.

[10] France, Cour de cassation, criminelle, Chambre criminelle, 10 mai 2012, 12-81.197, Publié au bulletin, <https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/juri/id/JURITEXT000025860357>.

[11] Gabriel Thierry, « Les métiers de la justice militaire, 40 ans après sa réforme», Dalloz Actualité, September 5, 2022, <https://www.dalloz-actualite.fr/flash/metiers-de-justice-militaire-40-ans-apres-sa-reforme>. See also France, Secrétariat général pour l’administration du ministère des armées, « Greffier militaire : l’un des rares métiers de justice qui vous emmène sur les Champs-Elysées », YouTube : <https://youtu.be/-orWF1uPliA?si=FC2P9-xaRCD6Wx4g>.


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