The former head of a French company at the center of a breast implant scandal affecting tens of thousands of women worldwide has been arrested in southeast France.
Jean-Claude Mas, who founded and ran the now-defunct French company Poly Implant Prothese, was detained Thursday as part of a judicial investigation in the southeastern city of Marseille into manslaughter and involuntary injuries, an official close to the investigation said.
So far no specific defendant has been named. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, because the case is in the hands of judicial investigators.
Investigating judge Annaick Le Goff opened the probe after a woman filed a lawsuit in the wake of the 2010 death from cancer of her daughter who had received a suspect implant.
As many as 3,000 other complaints by other alleged victims have been taken into account.
The implants have been removed from the marketplace in several countries in and beyond Europe amid fears they could rupture and leak silicone into the body.
"This is a comfort for the victims," said Laurent Gaudon, whose clients accuse PIP and surgeons who used its implants of fraud.
"It's the feeling that justice is advancing and they have not been forgotten. It's the assurance that the guilty are at last going to be held accountable," Gaudon added.
Philippe Courtois, who represents a group of 1,300 people with PIP implants, said it was vital Mas was not allowed to flee justice.
"A degree of provisionary detention is desirable," he said.
Mas, who sold some 300,000 implants around the world, has acknowledged that he had used unapproved silicone but dismissed fears that it constituted a health risk.
Mas is also on Interpol's most-wanted list, but the international police agency said its "red notice" was issued in June at the request of Costa Rica, where he faces a drunken driving charge.
Mas, 72, was detained shortly before dawn during a search of a residence in the Mediterranean coastal town of Six Fours Les Plages, a police official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
A secretary at the office of Mas' defense lawyer Yves Haddad said the lawyer — who was with Mas during police questioning — was not immediately available for comment.
Silicone more rupture-prone
Authorities worldwide have been scrambling to strike a proper public response to the scandal — notably concerning who will pay to remove the implants — made with cheap, industrial-grade silicone instead of medical-grade gel — or if the implants need to invariably come out.
European governments have taken different positions: German, Czech and French authorities say the implants should be removed, while Britain says there is not enough evidence of health risks to suggest they should be taken out in all cases.
On Wednesday, health authorities in Brazil said the government will fine private health plans that refuse to pay for the removal and replacement of faulty breast implants sold by PIP and a Dutch company.
A lawyer for Mas said in a statement earlier this month that his client, who ran PIP until it was closed in March 2010, would not speak publicly on the case.
The scandal has put pressure on French health authorities for allegedly not doing enough to vet the quality of a product used by untold thousands of women both in France and abroad.
France's Health Safety Agency has said the suspect implants — just one type of implants made by PIP — appear to be more rupture-prone than other types. Investigators say PIP sought to save money by using industrial silicone, whose potential health risks are not yet clear.
PIP's website said the company had exported to more than 60 countries and was one of the world's leading implant makers. The silicone-gel implants in question are not sold in the United States.
According to estimates by national authorities, over 42,000 women in Britain received the implants, more than 30,000 in France, 9,000 in Australia and 4,000 in Italy. Nearly 25,000 of the implants were sold in Brazil.