La Rochelle: Male students and staff at a French school have begun providing police with DNA samples in an unprecedented operation to discover who raped a 16-year-old pupil.
The operation has raised concerns over rights violations after the prosecutor handling the case said anyone refusing to submit a sample would be considered a potential suspect.
By mid-afternoon on Monday 142 of the 527 boys or men who have been asked to participate had provided samples at Fenelon-Notre Dame, a private Catholic high school in the port city of La Rochelle.
Media circus: Prosecutor Isabelle Pagenelle has defended her decision to order the tests. "To say this is a first, does not automatically mean it is not a legitimate operation." Photo: AFP
"Nobody has objected and the samples have been taken in a calm and orderly fashion," local prosecutor Isabelle Pagenelle told reporters, defending her decision to order the tests.
"To say this is a first, does not automatically mean it is not a legitimate operation," she added.
It was expected to take until Wednesday for all the required samples to be collected from a total of 475 male students, 31 teachers and 21 other staff known to have been on site at the time of the attack.
The DNA kit that will be used in the La Rochelle rape investigation. More than 500 male students and staff at a French high school will undergo testing. Photo: AFP
The girl was raped in a toilet at the school on September 30. The lights in the bathroom had been turned off and she has not been able to identify her attacker.
A trace of male DNA taken from her clothing will be compared with the samples taken this week.
"We have nothing to go on except the DNA," said Ms Pagenelle.
Prosecutor Isabelle Pagenelle: "Nobody has objected and the samples have been taken in a calm and orderly fashion." Photo: AFP
“The choice is simple for me,” Pagenelle told reporters. “Either I wait for a match in what could be several years, or I go looking for the match myself.”
“We must have the consent both both the parents and the minor,” she added, “but those who say no will become potential suspects who could be taken into custody.”
She said: "There is a very strong probability that the person who did this was someone within the school who knew the building."
Each individual asked to provide a sample had to agree to the process and parental consent was also required for the minors involved.
The samples were being taken by saliva swabs under the tongue. They were to be sent to laboratories in Lyon and Nantes and the testing process is expected to take several months to complete.
Authorities said samples that do not match the DNA found on the victim will be destroyed.
Many of the students said they were willing to give samples in the hope of tracking down the rapist.
"Everyone is participating without too much hassle because we stand by the girl who was raped and want to find whoever was responsible," said Lucas, a 17-year-old student.
Concerned about their own security, some students asked why the authorities had waited so long after the attack before carrying out the tests.
“I don't know why it took so long, it's not normal. The rapist may have been in the school for the past seven months,” said 16-year-old Margaux.
Others have condemned the mass test as a violation of civil rights.
“Refusing to give a DNA sample when not in custody is a right,” prominent lawyer Joseph Cohen-Sabban told Le Figaro newspaper.
French courts rarely order mass DNA tests, and when they do they generally target specific categories of people.
The only example of blanket sampling was in Pleine-Fougères (Brittany), where British schoolgirl Caroline Dickinson was murdered in 1996 and police tested more than 400 inhabitants the following year.
Francisco Arce Montes, a Spanish national, was not among those tested but he was arrested in the US in 2001 and convicted of the murder through an individual DNA match.