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Coroner adjourns Diana inquest

Britain's first formal inquest into the deaths of Princess Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed opened Tuesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Britain’s first formal inquest into the deaths of Princess Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed opened Tuesday, a case in which some see a sinister conspiracy but one of Diana’s bodyguards dismisses as a “mundane road traffic accident.”

Royal coroner Michael Burgess, signaling a broad probe, said he had asked London’s Metropolitan Police to investigate whether conspiracy theories should be part of the inquest.

Burgess then adjourned the case, saying it likely would reopen early next year.

“I’m aware that there is speculation that these deaths were not the result of a sad but relatively straightforward road traffic accident in Paris,” Burgess said.

“I have asked the Metropolitan Police Commissioner (Sir John Stevens) to make inquiries. The results of these inquiries will help me to decide whether such matters will fall within the scope of the investigation carried out at the inquests,” he said.

Burgess said he would focus on four key questions — “who the deceased person was, and how, when and where the cause of death arose.”

Explaining why he was adjourning the proceedings for up to 15 months, Burgess said that judicial proceedings in France, including any appeals, must be concluded before he could have access to documentation compiled by French investigators.

Private grief
Burgess also noted that many potential witnesses live abroad. He said the proceedings may “give rise to considerable and possibly unnecessary intrusion into private grief. That I regret, just as I regret the untold pain for some in having to relive the experiences surrounding the deaths.”

Fayed’s father, Egyptian-born billionaire Mohammed al Fayed, who believes his son and Diana were murdered, has repeatedly called for a full public inquiry into the deaths and had said a coroner’s inquest was too narrow.

“This is what we have been waiting for for six years,” al Fayed told APTN as he arrived at the Diana inquest. “At last I hope we can see the light.”

But Diana’s former bodyguard Ken Wharfe dismissed the murder claim.

“I have said this many, many times, the Princess of Wales was killed tragically in nothing more than a mundane road traffic accident,” he told ITV television.

“If we look at the conspiracy theories perpetrated by Mohamed al Fayed again, you look at the evidence, there is no evidence here. It is mere speculation,” Wharfe said.

Al Fayed has frequently said he believes Diana, 36, and his 42-year-old son were victims of a murder conspiracy plotted by people who disapproved of their relationship. He also says there was a cover-up of the circumstances of the crash.

Many in Britain — and more around the world — appear to share al Fayed’s suspicions in varying degrees, although Diana’s friends and family dismiss the murder claim and other rumors.

A French judge ruled in 1999 that the crash was an accident, and an investigation concluded that driver Henri Paul, who also died, had been drinking and was driving at high speed. 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.

In November, a French court acquitted three photographers in a case brought by al Fayed, who alleged they invaded his son’s privacy by taking pictures at the crash scene. Prosecutors have appealed that verdict.

Clarence House, official residence of Diana’s former husband Prince Charles, said he and his sons, Princes William and Harry, “are very pleased that the inquest is finally under way.” They did not attend the formal opening.

One of Diana’s sisters, Lady Sarah McQuorquodale, did attend.