Appeal for France to clear Mata Hari

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MATA Hari, the mysterious Dutch spy and exotic dancer who was executed in France in 1917 for selling secrets to the Germans, could have her conviction overturned after claims by a Russian historian that her trial was rigged.

On the 84th anniversary of her execution by a firing squad in a ditch at Vincennes, on the outskirts of Paris, the Mata Hari Foundation and the town of the spy’s birth, Leeuwarden, yesterday lodged an official request with the French justice minister to have her trial reheard.

"We will show that all the factors on which Mata Hari was condemned to death do not hold up," Thibault de Montbrial, the lawyer who is representing the foundation, told Le Monde yesterday.

Lon Schirmann, a Russian historian, paints Mata Hari not as a scheming female master spy but as a showgirl who got in over her head. She was framed by a German officer whom she seduced, Mr Schirmann contends, who elevated her in his telegrams from a hapless informant to a master spy who penetrated French forces. The officer knew the telegrams were being intercepted. Her trial was then manipulated by the French - even though she was actually working for them.

"Mata Hari was not made to be a spy," said Mr Schirmann. "People used her in a campaign against the Boches. She was just a woman who loved to make the most of life. And one who didn’t understand that with the advent of the war, nothing would ever be the same again."

Born in northern Holland on 7 August, 1876, Mata Hari - Margaretha Geertruida Zelle - was the daughter of a prosperous hat merchant.

As a child she learned French, English and German, before she was sent to live with an uncle in The Hague. There, she was so bored that she answered a lonely hearts advertisement from a Scottish sea captain.

The much older Captain Rudolph MacLeod fell madly in love with her "superb, strangely fascinating almond-shaped eyes" and "her slim and svelte body". When they separated seven years later Margaretha set off for Paris, abandoning a young daughter.

Staying in a luxury hotel, she changed her name to Mata Hari, which she told journalists meant "sun" in Malay. She said she had been born in the East Indies and had learned secret dances in Bhuddhist temples. All Paris - and soon all Europe - fell under her spell, as did a string of wealthy lovers. "She scarcely danced, but she knew how to gradually reveal a slender, brown, proud, long-limbed body," wrote the columnists Colette in Le Figaro.

But when war broke out in 1914, her Berlin show was cancelled and her costly furs seized by the Germans. Returning penniless to Amsterdam, she accepted the offer of the German consul to become spy number H21, for which she was paid 20,000 francs. She moved back to Paris, but by all accounts H21 was a hopeless agent. In a tangled web, Mata Hari switched her allegiance to French counter-intelligence, and, although in love with a Russian captain, seduced the German military attach in Madrid. It was his telegrams that led to her arrest.

When the commissaire of police and his five inspectors arrived to arrest Mata Hari at her Paris hotel, she emerged naked and offered her captors chocolates. But her charms did not save her.