Trial of France's 'most wanted' man begins

FRANCE: They sat face to face in the special assize court yesterday, the aggrieved silver-haired widow Dominique Érignac and…

FRANCE:They sat face to face in the special assize court yesterday, the aggrieved silver-haired widow Dominique Érignac and the Corsican nationalist Yvan Colonna, accused of murdering her husband.

Mrs Érignac wore a grey tailored suit and a purple scarf. In the dock, Mr Colonna wore a black tracksuit. She bowed her head slightly as the witnesses were called and the long charge sheet was read by the clerk. He stared into space or laid his head on folded arms, like a schoolchild.

Seated only a few metres apart, they avoided each other's eyes. The trial will last one month. If convicted, Colonna is likely to be sentenced to life in prison.

Nearly a decade has passed since the winter night when Claude Érignac, the prefect of Corsica, dropped his wife off in front of the municipal theatre in Ajaccio, went to park his car and was shot dead with three bullets to the neck as he walked back to join her at a concert.


Six Corsican nationalists, all friends of Colonna, received sentences in 2003 ranging from 15 years' to life imprisonment for their part in the murder.

The group targeted Érignac because, as the highest-ranking French official on the island, they said he symbolised what they call "the oppressor" or "the colonial state".

The son of a former socialist deputy in the National Assembly, he had earned a university degree in Nice before moving to his grandmother's home in southern Corsica to plant olive trees and raise goats, which he described as an act of "militant commitment".

Colonna went into hiding in May 1999 when his colleagues were arrested. For four years, he was France's most wanted man.

Colonna was sheltered by sympathetic Corsicans, one of whom, a well-known singer, was arrested last weekend. In 1999, his parents wrote to Mrs Érignac to ask forgiveness in the name of their son. The prosecution intends to use their letter as evidence, though Colonna's parents now say they believe he is innocent.

Colonna was arrested in July 2003 in a shepherd's hut, in possession of two ski masks, an ammunition clip and a grenade. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was then interior minister, had staged an elaborate operation two days before a referendum on the administration of the island. The rejection of the referendum was a setback for Sarkozy.

Four members of the hit squad and three of their wives identified Colonna as the man who pulled the trigger. "The prefect was coming up the right-hand pavement," Colonna's childhood friend Pierre Alessandri told police in testimony that was read out in the charge sheet.

"I was in front and Yvan Colonna was behind me. Almost immediately after I passed the prefect, I heard shots, though I couldn't say how many. As soon as I heard them I turned my head and I saw the prefect on the ground."

In 1999, seven witnesses gave lengthy and consistent descriptions of Colonna's role in the attack on the gendarmerie station at Pietrosella, where the murder weapon was stolen, and his participation in the assassination. Their testimony is the only evidence against him. Yet all have since retracted their statements, and Alessandri, who was convicted of "covering" Colonna during the killing, now says he, not Colonna, pulled the trigger.

"[ Alessandri] was already condemned to life in prison," Philippe Lemaire, Mrs Érignac's lawyer, said outside the courtroom.

"When they could no longer do anything more to him, he said, 'I'm the one who killed the prefect'. It's pathetic, pathetic. He waited seven years before confessing!"

But Colonna's lawyers stress that "there is no material proof" against him, "no fingerprints, no DNA, no phone records". Police established that Didier Maranelli, the spotter, and Alain Ferrandi, the ideologue of the group, phoned each other eight times in the 40 minutes preceding the assassination.

Back in 1998, Corsicans demonstrated en masse against the murder of Érignac, the only peacetime killing of a prefect in the history of France. He was known as a dedicated public servant and family man.

His widow, son and daughter, who sat beside their mother in court, campaigned tirelessly for justice.

Before the trial started, Mrs Érignac gave an interview to the Catholic magazine Le Pèlerin in which she said she had to "surpass" herself to "fight indifference, so that justice could be done . . . this strength, this energy, it is my husband who has given them to me.

"He lives in me."

Despite considerable and widespread revulsion at Érignac's murder, graffiti saying "gloria a te Yvan" continues to appear on the walls of Ajaccio, and Colonna's support committee has obtained 33,000 signatures - on an island of 270,000 - on a petition demanding a "fair trial" for him.

When Mr Sarkozy visited Corsica last month, he was protected by 3,300 police and gendarmes, including 1,500 who were brought on to the island as reinforcements from the mainland.