2 Plead Guilty in Ship Sinking : Murder Charges Dropped in Greenpeace Sabotage
Two French agents charged with murder in the sinking of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior pleaded guilty today to the lesser charge of manslaughter.
The surprising move came as Solicitor General Paul Neazor intervened and dropped the murder charges against Maj. Alain Mafart, 34, and Capt. Dominique Prieur, 36.
Mafart and Prieur, both identified in court as French army officers, then were asked to plead to the reduced charges of manslaughter and arson.
They both stood in the dock and said, “Guilty.”
Judge Ronald J. Gilbert accepted the pleas and ordered the pair to be held until Nov. 22, when they will be sentenced in the High Court.
The Rainbow Warrior was sunk July 10 by two mines attached to its hull in Auckland harbor. A Greenpeace photographer, Fernando Pereira, 30, of the Netherlands, died in the incident.
In a summary of evidence, prosecutor David Morris said Pereira drowned as he tried to rescue photographic equipment from the ship and was not injured by the explosion, Reuters news agency reported.
Greenpeace, a London-based environmental group, had sent the ship to New Zealand to lead a protest flotilla against French nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific.
Mafart and Prieur were arrested in New Zealand and on July 15 were charged with murder, conspiracy and arson.
New Zealand accused France of masterminding the attack, and in September the French government acknowledged that the mining was ordered by the French secret service.
Some legal observers said the reduced charges offered by Neazor, New Zealand’s chief prosecutor, indicate that the government might simply deport the French agents in a move to ease strained relations. The pair was ordered at the end of today’s hearing to appear in the Auckland District Court Nov. 25 on immigration charges.
A murder conviction carries a mandatory life sentence, which means a minimum of seven years in jail under New Zealand law.
There is no set penalty for manslaughter, and sentences can range from brief detention to life imprisonment.
Neazor told the court that Mafart and Prieur were not personally responsible for the placing of the explosives on the ship and did not intend to kill anyone.
“The Crown also accepts that the guilty plea means a significant acceptance of the consequences of the act of sabotage,” he said.
No Comment From France
In Paris, an official at the office of Premier Laurent Fabius said there was to be no immediate response to the court developments.
Neazor, in a summary of the prosecution’s case, said Mafart and Prieur entered New Zealand on June 22 on false Swiss passports posing as Mr. and Mrs. Turenge.
He said that the identities of the people who planted the explosives on the hull of the Rainbow Warrior have not been established, but that there was no doubt it was done by trained experts in underwater warfare.
“The Crown’s investigations do not establish the defendants’ role as other than in support of those who actually placed the explosives,” Neazor said. “As part of their support role, the defendants were responsible for picking up and removing from the scene one of the persons responsible for the placement of the explosive devices.”
Neazor said Mafart and Prieur phoned Paris the morning after the sinking and changed their plane reservations to make an early departure. But they were questioned by police the next day and arrested July 15.
In a Sunday interview broadcast on Australian television, New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange had said he was “almost certain that those two (French agents) never had anything physically to do on the night of July 10 which caused that ship to sink and that man to die.”
Six Agents Involved
A French investigation disclosed in August that Mafart and Prieur were among six French agents who were monitoring activities of the Rainbow Warrior. It did not say who sank the ship or directed the surveillance operation.
But in September, Premier Fabius admitted that France’s secret service had ordered the sinking. He refused to disclose the actions of the individual agents involved.
The French government’s admission of responsibility led to the resignation of Charles Hernu as defense minister and the dismissal of the head of French intelligence, Adm. Pierre Lacoste.