Police trial opens decade after deaths triggered French riots

2015-03-16 15:46

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Paris - The long-awaited trial of two police officers was to start Monday over the deaths of two youths that triggered weeks of deadly rioting across France's housing projects nearly 10 years ago.

Officers Sebastien Gaillemin and Stephanie Klein will face a court in Rennes, west of Paris, on charges they failed to prevent the electrocution deaths of Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17.

The pair died on 27 October 2005, in a high-voltage electricity transformer 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.

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

Darker consequences  

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, inducing much soul-searching in France, yet little improvement in the projects since.

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 victim's families.

'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 ($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 anticipated harassment and humiliation.

That led them into the fenced-off electrical transformers, where - 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.

"My clients are relieved to finally get a hearing, because they are certain they did nothing wrong, committed no error," Merchat said last week.

Several earlier hearings and internal investigations have cleared Gaillemin and Klein of error and negligence, but judges ordered the case to court in October 2012.

"Some people never wanted this case to be tried, [and] that almost worked," Mignard said.

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