Royal coroner - Princess Diana inquest planned for January

Friday, December 19, 2003

LONDON -- Six years after Princess Diana's fatal car crash, the royal coroner on Thursday announced an inquest next month into her death -- an inquiry that could help dispel lingering suspicions of a conspiracy to kill the princess.

A French court ruled in 2002 that the Aug. 31, 1997, crash in Paris was an accident caused by drunk and speeding driver Henri Paul. But Egyptian-born billionaire Mohammed al Fayed, whose son, Dodi, died with Diana, claims they were murdered.

Michael Burgess, the British royal family's coroner, said the inquest into Diana's death, and a separate inquest into Dodi Fayed's, would open Jan. 6 in different locations hours apart. He gave few details about how the hearings would proceed and did not indicate how long they would last.

Al Fayed has campaigned relentlessly for a full public inquiry and dismissed the inquests as inadequate.

Many in Britain -- and more around the world -- appear to share his suspicions in varying degrees.

Although Diana's friends and family dismiss the murder claim and other rumors, nothing anyone says seems to dissuade those who suspect the princess and Fayed were killed because of official disapproval of their relationship.

Diana's former butler, Paul Burrell, stoked the fires in October when publicizing his new book about Diana. He released a letter written by the princess in which she said she feared the brakes of her car would be tampered with.

Al Fayed welcomed the British inquests, his spokesman Chester Stern said, but "the remit of a coroner's inquest is far too narrow. It's merely to determine the cause of death."

"This is a matter which requires open public scrutiny on a much broader scale than an inquest can offer," Stern said.

A British inquest is required when an unnatural or violent death occurs abroad and the body is brought back to this country.

Burgess is expected to adjourn the hearings the day he opens them, to conduct further investigation and consider potential witnesses. His office declined to speculate on how long the inquests might last.

The British inquests follow the conclusion of legal processes in France.

A French judged ruled in 1999 that the crash was an accident. In 2002, France's highest court dropped manslaughter charges against nine photographers who pursued the car before it crashed or who took photos at the site. Less than a month ago, three photographers were acquitted in a French case brought by al Fayed, who alleged they invaded his son's privacy by taking pictures.

Al Fayed champions one of the most popular conspiracy theories among those debated in thousands of Internet sites dedicated to questions surrounding the crash.

It alleges the pair were killed by the British secret service because Fayed was a Muslim.

The government denies the claims. But rumors that Diana, 36, was pregnant and planning to marry Fayed, 42 -- both rejected by her friends -- fueled the stories.

In September, a poll found that 27 percent of those asked believed the princess was murdered. The survey, conducted by polling company NOP, also said 49 percent thought there had been a cover-up of the circumstances of Diana's death.

There are also unsubstantiated stories of photographs of the crash site being stolen, suspicion about closed-circuit TV cameras inside the tunnel where the crash occurred that were said to have been turned to face a wall, and claims Diana could have been saved if she had been taken to a hospital more quickly.

Time does not appear to have diminished such suspicions.

In a statement announcing the inquests, the coroner acknowledged that setting them up had been a lengthy process.

"The opening of these inquests has been the subject of discussion and correspondence with the families for some time but because of the complexity of the situation, the final arrangements have taken rather longer to complete than I would have wished," Burgess said.

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