Exclusive: French police to interview Sophie witnesses again
Department of Justice lifts restrictions as team of investigators begin a fresh probe into murder
French police investigating the murder of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier will make a surprise return to Ireland within weeks after the Department of Justice reinstated a cooperation agreement allowing them to quiz witnesses in the case.
The agreement was suspended before former suspect Ian Bailey's unsuccessful case against the State for unlawful arrest.
However, the Sunday Independent has learned it was quietly reactivated after Mr Bailey's legal action failed last May, leaving him with the prospect of a legal bill of up to €5m.
French detectives working on behalf of Paris magistrate Patrick Gachon will speak next month to around 30 witnesses, many of whom were previously interviewed by them in 2011.
The development surprised Mr Bailey's solicitor, Frank Buttimer, who told the Sunday Independent he had not received any formal notification that the suspension of the cooperation agreement had been lifted.
However, government sources confirmed the agreement was quietly reinstated last May.
According to a lawyer for Ms Toscan du Plantier's family, the fresh round of questioning will complete Mr Gachon's inquiry.
It is expected that he will forward a file to the Paris prosecutor's office by the end of the year.
The prosecutor will then advise on whether or not to try Mr Bailey in his absence.
No one has ever been charged with the murder of Ms Toscan du Plantier. The filmmaker was battered to death outside her holiday home near Schull, Co Cork, in December 1996.
Mr Bailey, a former journalist who wrote newspaper stories about the murder in the days after Ms Toscan du Plantier's death, has always denied involvement and unsuccessfully sued the State, claiming gardai tried to frame him.
A Garda investigation formally ended in 2008 when the Director of Public Prosecutions decided not to bring any criminal charges.
Shortly afterwards, following a campaign by the slain woman's family, an investigation was launched in France by Mr Gachon under laws that allow for inquiries into the deaths of French citizens abroad.
As part of the probe, material from the original Garda inquiry was shared with the French authorities.
However, efforts to extradite Mr Bailey were blocked by the Supreme Court in 2012.
"We believe it is very likely there will be a trial in absen- tia," said Alain Spilliaert, a lawyer for Ms Toscan du Plantier's family.
He said Mr Bailey's failed High Court action for wrongful arrest had been watched closely by French authorities.
"It is very positive that there is now cooperation again between the two nations," said Mr Spilliaert. "The major problem, as far as we are concerned, is the passage of time. It has been 18 years, and time is of the essence. We have tried to speed up the process, but it is not easy."
Solicitor Mr Buttimer said that as far as he was concerned, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald had agreed to suspend cooperation with the French.
"That remains the position as far as I am concerned, and I would be very surprised that there would be a withdrawal of that agreement in circumstances where it has not been communicated to me in advance so I could deal with the situation appropriately," he said.
Mr Buttimer said the continuing French investigation was "farcical", given that there was no prospect of Mr Bailey ever being extradited.
He said it could only lead to "a meaningless show trial".
Mr Buttimer also confirmed that Mr Bailey intended to appeal the loss of his High Court action.
His client has already been ordered to pay all of the legal costs from the 64-day case, estimated at between €2m and €5m. The Department of Justice declined to comment.
However, government sources said the cooperation agreement was reinstated shortly after the High Court case ended.
Mr Bailey claimed during the case that gardai had conspired to implicate him in the murder, but a large part of the case was struck out as statute-barred, and a jury found against Mr Bailey on the remaining issues.
Mr Bailey's partner, painter Jules Thomas, is bringing a similar case against the State. An application by the State to prevent her case from proceeding is due to be heard in October.
The High Court will have to decide whether the case being taken by Ms Thomas is statute-barred.
State lawyers intend to apply to have Ms Thomas's claim for wrongful arrest on dates in 1997 and 2000 struck out, arguing that it was brought outside the applicable six-year legal time limit.