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Diana crash photographers on trial

The wreck of the Mercedes in which Princess Diana was traveling
The wreck of the Mercedes in which Princess Diana was traveling

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PARIS, France -- Three photographers who allegedly took pictures of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed inside their wrecked car have gone on trial in Paris on charges of invasion of privacy.

However, the defendants in the first criminal trial relating to the crash are expected to face only symbolic punishment after the French public prosecutor requested suspended prison sentences for them.

The judge said he would issue a verdict on Jacques Langevin, Fabrice Chassery and Christian Martinez on November 28.

The case hangs on a precedent in French law under which the interior of a car is deemed private, even on a public road.

Under the country's strict privacy laws, the photographers could in theory be jailed for a year and ordered to pay fines of 45,000 euros ($53,000).

Prosecutor Beatrice Vauthrein said the photographers continued taking pictures at the scene of the crash.

"What they were seeking to photograph was anxiety, distress, it was people who were dying. If these moments are not respected, then we are sliding toward totalitarianism," she told the court.

Similar charges against five other photographers have already been dropped.

"The charges are groundless ... the photographers were acting in good faith, doing their job with people like Diana, who used the press and brushed it away when she no longer wanted it," said Jean-Louis Pelletier, lawyer for photographer Chassery.

The case comes amid controversy in Britain over a newspaper's publication of a letter sent by Diana to her former butler Paul Burrell in which the princess predicted her death.

Two of the photographers on trial had allegedly chased the Mercedes car that had left the Paris Ritz hotel, and are accused of taking photographs of the crash victims. The third, Langevin, arrived 15 minutes later.

Three people traveling in the car in late August 1997 died, including the chauffeur Henri Paul who has been blamed for driving while under the influence of alcohol that night.

Photos taken at the site were confiscated and none were ever published.

Manslaughter charges against the photographers were dropped during the 1999 inquiry into the tragedy, as were charges of failing to assist at the scene of an accident. But the ethical and moral behavior of the photographers at the scene came in for criticism.

The invasion suit has been brought following complaints by Mohamed al Fayed. He has renewed his call for a British public inquiry into the deaths following the serialization of royal butler Paul Burrell's book "A Royal Duty," in which it is claimed Diana wrote about her fears of a plot to kill her in a car crash 10 months before the accident.

The invasion case is expected to trigger a battle over press freedom. Action brought by French pop star Michel Sardou has established the principle under French law that the inside of a car should be regarded as just as private as the inside of a house.

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