Police trial opens decade after deaths triggered French riots

16th March 2015, Comments 0 comments

Two police officers went on trial Monday over the deaths of two youths that sparked weeks of deadly rioting in France's deprived housing estates nearly a decade ago.

The two officers, Sebastien Gaillemin and Stephanie Klein arrived stony-faced at the court in Rennes, west of Paris, to face charges they failed to prevent the electrocution deaths of Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17.

The teenagers died on October 27, 2005, in a high-voltage electricity sub-station near their Clichy-sous-Bois housing project northeast of Paris, as they hid from police officers milling nearby.

Their friend Muhittin Altun survived with severe burns.

"This is very important for us. We've been waiting for this moment for 10 years," said Adel Benna, Zyed's brother, as he arrived for the trial.

"We're very happy to have this trial."

The five-day trial will examine whether Gaillemin and Klein knew the youths were in grave danger, but failed to act.

News of Benna and Traore's deaths ignited the pent-up rage of younger Clichy residents over poverty, police harassment and general alienation in the ghetto-like projects.

Almost 10 years on, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently said the areas still represent "territorial, social and ethnic apartheid" within society.

The rioting, arson, and running clashes with security forces that broke out in Clichy quickly spread across hundreds of other communities and lasted for three weeks.

Debate over the darker consequences of that alienation has recently returned to the top of the political agenda in the wake of the jihadist attacks in January in Paris by youths who had embraced radical Islam.

Critics say the long battle to try Gaillemin, 41 and Klein, 38, is further proof of the discrimination against the blighted "banlieues" (suburbs) and their residents.

"Three kids were victims, two of them died in atrocious conditions. That could have been avoided, (but) the idea of acting to rescue youths who were from the projects never came to mind," charged Jean-Pierre Mignard, a lawyer for the victims' families.

Presiding judge Nicolas Leger said the court was "well aware of the particular suffering" of the families, but stressed at the outset that it was neither "a trial of the national police" nor a ruling on the "riots that shook France".

- 'Never wanted this case' -

Gaillemin and Klein are being tried for "non-assistance to individuals in danger", a charge carrying a maximum prison term of five years and fines of up to 75,000 euros ($79,000).

Benna, Traore and Altun were all known in Clichy as well-behaved teenagers, and supporters of their families say the trio did what project youths learn to do when police start chasing them: they ran from the anticipated harassment and humiliation.

That led them into the fenced-off electrical transformers.

According to accounts and transcripts of police radio exchanges -- surrounding police discussed the fleeing youths and noted the dire consequences in the event they had sought shelter inside the high-voltage installation.

But Daniel Merchat, the lawyer for Klein and Gaillemin, says none of the evidence indicates the defendants knew the boys were in the complex and facing grave danger.

Several earlier hearings and internal investigations have cleared Gaillemin and Klein of error and negligence, but judges ordered the case back to court.

Loic Lecouplier, deputy national secretary for the National Police Alliance, said the hearing should not boil down to "the trial of the suburb police officers against the suburb youth."

"It's the trial of two police officers, who were very young when the event happened."


© 2015 AFP

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