France criticised for forcing suspects to unlock phones

Activists have accused French judges of imperilling the right to a fair trial after making it an offence for a suspect to refuse to unlock their mobile phone.

France criticised for forcing suspects to unlock phones
A lawyer uses a mobile phone. (Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP)

France’s highest appeals court, the Cour de Cassation, ruled on Monday that a passcode could be regarded as a “decryption key” and refusing to hand it over was punishable by up to three years in jail and a massive fine.

Campaign group Fair Trials said in a statement that everyone had the right not to incriminate themselves, describing it as “an essential guarantee of a fair trial”.

“Forcing people to open their mobile phones threatens this right,” said the group’s Ilze Tralmaka.

“People should not be forced to actively cooperate with an investigation against them under the threat of criminal conviction.”

The court was considering the decisions of several lower courts stretching back to 2019 when a man was convicted of cannabis possession but acquitted of refusing to hand over his passcode.

The decision was upheld on appeal, rejected on higher appeal but reaffirmed by the lower court, which refused to change the decision.

Prosecutors eventually took the case to the country’s highest appeal court arguing that the initial trial judge had wrongly excluded phone passcodes from the legal definition of “decryption key”.

The Cour de Cassation agreed and ordered the case to be retried.

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French ex-minister convicted in fake jobs scam

A French court on Thursday found former justice minister Michel Mercier guilty of embezzlement in a fake jobs scheme he ran for the benefit of family members.

French ex-minister convicted in fake jobs scam

Mercier, 75, who served under former president Nicolas Sarkozy between 2010 and 2012, claimed tens of thousands of euros for his wife and daughter for parliamentary jobs  they never carried out.

The court handed him a suspended prison sentence of three years.

Mercier gave “personal gain precedence over the public good”, the court said in its verdict, calling Mercier’s actions “serious”.

As senator, Mercier claimed 50,000 euros ($54,000 at today’s rate) in salary for his wife Joelle between 2005 and 2009, and  €37,000 for his daughter Delphine between 2012 and 2014.

During that time, Delphine Mercier was living in London and did not set foot in the French Senate, but her father claimed she was acting as his “cultural advisor”.

Neither Mercier nor his daughter were able to provide any proof of actual work done.

Joelle Mercier, meanwhile, claimed during the trial that she had served as her husband’s representative at village fairs and funerals.

She was found guilty of conspiracy to embezzle public funds and of receiving stolen money and sentenced to a suspended prison term of 18 months and a €40,000 fine.

The court handed the daughter a 12-month suspended sentence and a fine of €10,000.

Prosecutors had asked for the ex-minister to serve one year behind bars, accusing him of “creating smoke screens” in his defence and seeking to mislead the court.

Mercier had based part of his defence on his rural roots, pitting his “common sense” against the “Parisians” of the national financial crimes unit PNF.

Several French politicians have been convicted for similar offences committed before France in 2017 banned National Assembly deputies and senators from employing family members.

The move came in reaction to a public outcry over a high-profile case involving former right-wing prime minister Francois Fillon, who was found guilty of providing a fake parliamentary assistant job to his wife that saw her paid hundreds of thousands of euros in public funds.

The “Penelopegate” scandal, revealed in a media report while he was the front-runner in the 2017 presidential race, torpedoed  his political career and cleared a path for then-relatively unknown Emmanuel Macron.

Last year, a court trimmed Fillon’s sentence to four years in prison with three suspended — down from five years with three suspended when he was first found guilty in 2020.