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Murdered woman is exhumed 12 years on

A French woman's body has been exhumed in the latest twist in a 12-year-old murder riddle set in Ireland.

The city of Cork at night.
The city of Cork at night.

The body of a French film producer has been exhumed in the latest twist in a 12-year-old murder riddle set in a remote and beautiful corner of Ireland. The remains of Sophie Toscan du Plantier were taken from a family crypt in the southern French village of Combret in a fresh investigation into her savage murder just before Christmas 1996. Toscan du Plantier, 39, whose husband, Daniel, was a celebrated French film director, was found bludgeoned to death near her holiday home in Schull, a house that looks out to the Fastnet Rock off the west Cork coast.

She had suffered multiple wounds to the head and body, apparently inflicted with a rock or concrete block, though no murder weapon was ever found and nobody was charged with the killing. The decision to exhume the body for a fresh postmortem examination using advances in DNA testing was made by Patrick Gachon, a Paris magistrate put in charge of the latest French inquiry after a campaign by the victim's family.

The magistrate plans to invite - but has no power to compel - witnesses to travel from Ireland to France to give evidence. The key witness, however, has already indicated that he is unlikely to attend. Ian Bailey, an English freelance journalist and sometime musician and poet, was twice arrested on suspicion of murder, but never charged. Mr Bailey, 51, now studying law at University College Cork, has always denied knowing, let alone killing Toscan du Plantier.

After the murder, he was the first reporter on the scene. This, perhaps, was unsurprising because he and his Welsh girlfriend, Jules Thomas, an artist, lived on a nearby smallholding. But a neighbour and a former friend have both testified that he told them about the murder at about the time the body was found and police alerted. These telephone conversation calls occurred hours before news of the murder became public. Mr Bailey accepts that he made the calls, but denies mentioning the crime.

Marie Farrell, a shopkeeper, has given evidence that she saw Mr Bailey on a bridge near Toscan du Plantier's home on the night of the killing. She also claimed that she had been the victim of a campaign of harassment and intimidation by Mr Bailey for making her statement to the police. In 2003, Mr Bailey, whose drunken past has included two brutal assaults on Miss Thomas, sued several British and Irish newspapers - including ones to which he had sold his story about being caught up in the inquiry - for defamation.

He lost six out of eight claims, succeeding only in winning small sums from two tabloids for suggesting that he had also been violent towards his ex-wife. But the case brought damning testimony from several witnesses. One said Mr Bailey had told him: "I went up there with a rock and bashed her brains out." Helen Callanan, an Irish journalist, also said Mr Bailey had admitted committing the murder, while a former employer told the libel trial he had given a graphic description of carrying it out. Most damaging of all, perhaps, was the testimony of Richard and Rosie Shelly, former friends of Mr Bailey. They told the court that on New Year's Eve 1998, he had confessed to them: "I did it. I did it. I went too far."

To this day, however, Mr Bailey denies any involvement and Mrs Farrell recently retracted the statement about her sighting of Mr Bailey, saying she was coerced by the Irish police into identifying him. Mr Bailey took his libel action to the high court in Dublin, but in February last year abandoned it in what the newspaper groups called a "complete capitulation" and what his lawyer described as "an honourable compromise". The newspapers paid ?80,000 (Dh461,000) towards his legal costs but no damages.

Meanwhile, a senior Irish police officer has been conducting an inquiry into the way the murder investigation was conducted. His brief includes an examination of Mrs Farrell's claims to have been put under duress and Mr Bailey's allegations that he was twice threatened with being shot by the police. Publication of the officer's report and any decisions about prosecutions have been shelved by the Irish authorities because of the new French investigation.

Some experts have expressed doubts on whether the exhumation of Toscan du Plantier's body will yield further clues, not least because it is the second time it has been dug up. Previously buried on her husband's estate, her remains were moved, at her family's request, in 2004. Daniel Toscan du Plantier collapsed and died while attending the 2003 Berlin film festival. Additionally, DNA samples were sent to laboratories in the United States and Britain after the killing but failed to reveal any forensic evidence, indicating that the killer was extremely careful or lucky.

Mr Bailey, who is suing the Irish police for wrongful arrest, has indicated through his lawyer that, although he would engage with Toscan du Plantier's family or their legal representatives over the death, he would be unwilling to travel to France or answer questions at a French judicial inquiry. He has told the family that they have been "misled into believing he had anything to do with the unlawful killing of their loved one".

Jean Pierre Gazeau, the dead woman's uncle, has rejected the idea of the family talking to Mr Bailey. "We refuse to have direct contact," he said. "The best behaviour of Mr Bailey is to contact the judge directly. He should come to France to give evidence." Meanwhile, the Association for the Truth about the Death of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, a group formed by the family last year, said last week that it had been contacted by a new witness in Ireland. Mr Gazeau, the association's president, told the Irish Examiner: "Each witness is important, but I feel the one who contacted us is very important."

More than a decade after Toscan du Plantier met her violent death, it remains possible that the tortuous tale surrounding a dreadful crime has not produced its last twist. dsapsted@thenational.ae