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France's `terror' judges: a new breed of risk-takers

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NOT everyone has a taste for this sort of thing,'' says Jean-Claude Vuillemin, a Paris judge. Not everyone indeed. Mr. Vuillemin carries a gun with him and never goes out alone. He and his family are surrounded by bodyguards. He varies his daily itinerary. He keeps his movements, address, and phone number secret.

Vuillemin is one of a new breed of ``terror judges,'' investigating magistrates who specialize in understanding the minds and motivations of terrorists.

Until 1981, terrorist trials in France were judged by a special state security court, composed of judges and military officers, and held behind closed doors. When the Socialist government came to power, they abolished this special court as antidemocratic and tried terrorists by jury. That system worked well until this past December, when R'egis Schleicher, a leader of the French extremist group Direct Action, terrified the jurors at his trial with death threats. Shortly afterward, the government decided to try terrorists with a panel of seven judges chosen on a case-by-case basis. The panel recently tried, convicted, and sentenced Lebanese Georges Ibrahim Abdallah to a life term for terrorism.

The 1980s have posed other challenges in the fight against terrorism. As the number of terrorist incidents increased and as more groups cooperated with each other in Europe and the Middle East, tracking them down became more complex and more urgent. The French have concentrated terror investigations in Paris to facilitate cooperation on different cases, and created a new terrorism section in the public prosecutor's office. They have also created a permanent corps of investigative magistrates who deal solely with terror cases.

Five magistrates based in Paris now control among them most of the investigations of terrorist groups that beset France today.

These include Direct Action, the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Faction (led by Mr. Abdallah), and the Committee for Solidarity With Arab Political Prisoners, which claimed responsibility for a wave of bombings in Paris last fall.

Like special prosecutors in the US, these judges have considerable power to subpoena witnesses and to conduct police investigations. They travel extensively, consulting with other police and intelligence services. Their job also demands the skills of a master detective.

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