The trial of two former French spies suspected of sharing secrets with China opened in a Paris criminal court Monday, behind closed doors for reasons of national security.

Identified only as Pierre-Marie H., 69, and Henri M., 73, both were counter-intelligence agents with France’s DGSE foreign intelligence service in the 1990s.

While the charge sheet reads like a spy thriller, the two white-haired men resembled ordinary retirees as they appeared before a panel of judges to answer to the charges, with Henri M. shuffling towards the dock, and Pierre-Marie H. appearing to have trouble hearing the proceedings.

They risk 15 years in prison on charges of “delivering information to a foreign power”, “harming the fundamental interests of the nation,” and sharing “intelligence with a foreign power.”

It was the prosecution team that requested a private hearing, with only the accused, judges, defence lawyers and agents from the interior and defence ministries present. They argued it was necessary to “prevent the disclosure of information relating to national defence”.

Journalists were ordered to leave the courtroom after the judges agreed to hear the matter in secret.

The case concerned “penetration by a foreign power of French intelligence”, said the office of the advocate general, which advises judges on matters of procedure.

While French officials have been at pains to avoid releasing details of the affair, several media reports say the foreign power in question is China.

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Both men, now retired, were charged and detained in December 2017, though they are out on bail.

Henri M. lives in Alsace in eastern France, and Pierre-Marie H. in the Eure region in the northwest.

Pierre-Marie’s wife, Laurence H. is also on trial, accused of “concealment of property derived from intelligence with a foreign power likely to harm the fundamental interests of the nation”.

– ‘Extremely serious’ –

When the story came to light in May 2018, French officials described it as an “extremely serious” case.

Defence Minister Florence Parly said at the time the men were suspected of having committed “treasonous” acts.

It was the DGSE itself that detected the leak, according to the defence ministry.

In 1997, Henri M. was appointed the DGSE’s man in Beijing, where he was the second secretary at the embassy. He was recalled in 1998 after having an affair with the ambassador’s Chinese interpreter.

He retired a few years later and returned to China in 2003, where he married the former interpreter, setting up a home on Hainan island in southern China.

Pierre-Marie H., who had never been posted abroad, was arrested at the Zurich airport carrying cash after meeting a Chinese contact on an Indian Ocean island, according to media reports.

During the 1990s, tensions ran high between China and France in the wake of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and the 1991 sale of French frigates to Taiwan.

A verdict is expected on July 10.


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