Seven French health officials charged with involuntary homicide over the death of more than 100 children infected with a human variant of mad-cow disease went on trial Wednesday in Paris, 16 years after the first victim of their alleged negligence died.
The doctors and administrators are accused of ignoring warning signs, and obscuring the dangers of administering growth hormones -- collected from the pituitary glands of human cadavers -- potentially infected with the disease.
Seven co-defendants, mostly in their 70s and 80s, could serve three to four years behind bars, and pay fines ranging from 35,000 to 45,000 euros (52,000 to 67,000 dollars). All have pleaded innocent.
The former head of the laboratory at the Pasteur Institute that purified the hormones, Fernand Dray, 85, is also charged with accepting bribes from exporters of the glands, and illegally selling by-products. He faces 10 years in prison and a fine of 150,000 euros.
"We feel deeply moved. It is as if our children were here watching us," said Jeanne Goerrian, president of a victims' association and one of 200 civil plaintiffs in the case, as she headed into court.
"This is not victory yet. It is an important stage in the fight. We hope justice will be done on memory of our children."
Defence lawyers argue that their clients acted in good faith, armed with the medical knowledge of their time.
"Twenty years ago, how much was really known?" asked Benoit Chabert, lawyer for Henri Cerceau, the former director of the central hospital pharmacy that was in charge of the hormone production.
In 1984, the international community was alerted to a possible link between human growth hormones and CJD by the death of a 21-year-old American. The next year, Britain, the United States and a dozen other countries banned hormones extracted from pituitary glands, using a new synthetic variant instead.
But France continued with the old method until 1988, tightening security and hygiene rules which, prosecutors say, were largely ignored.
Nor were parents warned of a potential risk.
The trial is expected to last four months, and will be heard before a panel of expert judges.
Of 1,698 children treated during the 1980s, 110 have succumbed thus far to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), an invariably lethal brain disorder that can lay dormant for years, sometimes decades.
The growth hormone case bears uncomfortable parallels to the AIDS tainted-blood scandal that shocked France -- and the world -- in the late-1980s and early 1990s.