July 21st 2006 saw the 100th anniversary of the end of one of the more astounding legal episodes in modern history, the Dreyfus Affair. French President Jacques Chirac marked the occasion on July 12 by giving a speech honoring Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery captain convicted of treason in 1894. July 12, 1906, was the date on which the Supreme Court of Appeal reversed Dreyfus's conviction and finally proclaimed him innocent; on July 21, in recognition of all he had been through, Dreyfus was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in a ceremony held at the Ecole Militaire. In response to cheers of "Vive Dreyfus!", Dreyfus famously responded, "No, gentlemen, I beg of you. Vive la France!"
The Dreyfus Affair is a story about an egregious abuse of the legal system, driven primarily by a powerful current of French antisemitism and by a desire to shield the French military from its own mistakes. It involves procedurally flawed court-martials, secret evidence, conspiracies, theft of government secrets, deportation to a brutal island prison, leaks to the press, leak prosecutions, riots by antisemitic mobs, and a cover-up and whitewash perpetrated at the highest levels of the French military.
The affair began when French intelligence officers intercepted an unsigned letter to a German military attaché giving away military secrets. Based on unfounded suspicions, his Jewish ancestry, and a ludicrously lax handwriting comparison, Dreyfus was court-martialed for treason. The court-martial was closed to the public and the evidence used against Dreyfus was classified. To firm up the weak case against Dreyfus, the judges were presented with a secret document the existence of which was not even revealed to Dreyfus's defense counsel. On the basis of the secret evidence, Dreyfus was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment at the penal colony at Devil's Island in French Guiana. He was first forced to undergo public humiliation in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire by having his insignia stripped from his uniform in a "degradation" ceremony. An antisemitic crowd of around 20,000, whose antagonism had been whipped up by the press, was there to jeer at him.
Dreyfus's family urged his innocence at every opportunity, but they were stymied. In 1896, a second letter was intercepted, this one specifically naming Infantry Major Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy as the spy. The new chief intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Georges Picquart, immediately re-examined the Dreyfus file and became convinced Dreyfus was wrongly convicted and that Esterhazy was guilty. His attempts to get the General Staff to reopen the case, however, were met with resistance. Instead, the existence of the secret file against Dreyfus was leaked to the press in an effort to cinch Dreyfus's guilt, and a newly forged document specifically naming Dreyfus as the guilty party was also leaked. Picquart was soon transferred to Tunisia, but while on leave engaged in leaks of his own: he confided the information about Esterhazy to a civilian friend, who in turn provided it in confidence to Vice-President of the Senate Auguste Scheurer-Kestner. But Scheurer-Kestner was unable to make any headway in uncovering further evidence.
The civilian friend Leblois, who had met Scheurer-Kestner at dinner one evening, conceived the idea of having recourse to him as the medium by which to save Dreyfus and, through Dreyfus, Picquart. Going to Scheurer-Kestner's house, Leblois told all he knew, and showed him Gonse's letters. Scheurer-Kestner was finally convinced, and swore to devote himself to the defense of the innocent (July 13, 1897). But he was much puzzled as to what course to pursue. Leblois had forbidden him to mention Picquart's name, and Picquart had forbidden that the Dreyfus family should be told. In this perplexity, born of the initial mistake of Picquart, Scheurer-Kestner pursued the most unlucky tactics imaginable; instead of quietly gathering together all his documents and uniting his forces with those of Matthew Dreyfus, he allowed the rumor of his convictions to be spread abroad, and thus put the Staff Office on the alert, giving them time to prepare themselves, and allowed the hostile press to bring discredit upon him and to weaken beforehand by premature and mutilated revelations the force of his arguments. Wikipedia:
At a meeting, General Billot, the Minister of War, General Gonse, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Major Joseph-Hubert Henry, the forger of the new evidence against Dreyfus, and Dreyfus's biased prosecutor, Commandant Armand du Paty de Clam, decided to warn Esterhazy, the spy, of the suspicions against him so that he could act more discreetly in the future. Indeed, after Esterhazy met with his German handler one more time, he met with du Paty de Clam, who promised him protection. Not long after, however, Esterhazy's banker recognized his handwriting on a copy of the original 1894 letter to the German attaché, which Dreyfus's family had circulated. Scheurer-Kestner publicly declared Dreyfus innocent, and Dreyfus's brother filed suit against Esterhazy. Responding to the charge, the military conducted a hasty court-martial against Esterhazy, again in closed session, and he was promptly acquitted. Instead, Lt. Col. Picquart was arrested and jailed for passing secret military information to civilians. More: