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France

France’s biggest ever child pickpocketing ring on trial

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-04-25

Three years after French police dismantled the a huge child pick-pocketing ring – which was said to be behind 75% of thefts in the Paris metro – the gang’s leaders have gone on trial, but pickpockets remain a major problem in the French capital.

It is a tale of disenfranchised youth, exploitation and organised crime straight out of the pages of Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’ played out in the heart of the French capital.

Nearly three years after police dismantled the Hamidovic gang – which is believed to have forced young girls to pickpocket in the Paris metro – the case has finally gone before a French court.

As the public awaits the trial’s outcome, which is due May 15, the case has highlighted the serious problem of crime and theft in the French capital.

French authorities first announced they had taken down the Hamidovic gang, a child pickpocketing ring that was said to have been behind 75 percent of the thefts on the Paris metro system, at the end of 2010. Police had long suspected that the organisation was forcing groups of minors, in particular young girls, to steal from people. If they failed to pickpocket a minimum of 300 euros per day, the children were subjected to brutal punishments, including beatings, cigarette burns and rape.

Yet the police struggled to gather any evidence. Arrest after arrest followed the same pattern. A child would be taken into custody for theft, but because the suspect was a minor, they couldn’t be held by the authorities. Mostly young girls of Roma origin, they were then released a couple of hours later. But there was one common thread. At every arrest, the police were given the same surname – Hamidovic. And every attempt to follow up on the name reached the same dead end – “impossible to contact the family”.

Bringing the Hamidovic gang to trial

It took the police three years to collect enough evidence to go after the Hamidovic gang. What they discovered in the process of their investigation was a mafia-style organisation that stretched across Europe.

Since then, 22 people have been brought up on charges related to the child pickpocketing ring, including now-60-year-old Bosnian Fehim Hamidovic, who is suspected of masterminding the whole operation and has been dubbed a modern day ‘Fagin’.

Police tracked Hamidovic and his wife, who is also set to stand trial, to Rome where they lived in a lavish villa. Aside from the property in the Italian capital, the couple also owned a second home as well as Cayenne Porsche. Despite their luxurious lifestyle, the Hamidovics declared no income. However, investigators estimate that the couple reaped 1.3 million euros from their pickpocketing ring, which also operated in Madrid and Brussels, in 2009 alone.

Hamidovic faces numerous charges, including conspiracy, human trafficking and gang rape. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison.

‘Minors were also victims’

In the course of their investigation into the Hamidovic gang, police were able to speak with a number of witnesses, who described the cigarette burns and beatings, as well as how they were trained to target Asian tourists, because they were said to carry the largest amounts of cash on them. None of the witnesses, however, were willing to testify in court.

“They have vanished,” said Guillaume Lardanchet, director of the Off the Street, an organisation that provides support to underage foreigners in difficulty. Off the Street worked with a number of minors involved with the Hamidovic gang before the case went to trial.

“We are punishing the head of the gang, which is a very good thing, but we forget that there are minors who are also victims of exploitation. We don’t know how to keep them out of the reach of gangs, or how to give them adequate protection,” Lardanchet said.

According to Lardanchet, many children’s homes and emergency shelters where girls from the Hamidovic gang were placed had an open door policy. Members of the organisation would wait outside of the buildings for the girls to pass by and emotionally blackmail or frighten them.

“These are minors who come from very difficult backgrounds. Some of them have never known any other kind of life. They don’t have a strong understanding of our institutions or our culture, which only further complicates things,” Lardanchet said, adding that he believed that the majority would “probably wind up back in a gang”.

“As long as we don’t have a system that can adequately protect them, it will continue,” Lardanchet said.

Two months of calm in the Paris metro

Following Hamidovic’s 2010 arrest, all was quiet in the Paris metro, giving commuters and tourists a reprieve from the scenes of theft that had become so commonplace. This newfound sense of calm, however, was short lived.

“The situation improved remarkably for about two months,” said Stanislas Gaudon, a representative of the French police union Alliance of public order and transport. “But then new minors of either Romanian or Bulgarian origin quickly replaced the Hamidovic gang in the metro and the RER. They have also targeted tourist sites such as the Louvre, around the [Galleries Lafayette and Printemps shopping centres] and near areas where tour buses pull over.”

In March, France’s minister of tourism, Sylvia Pinel, was forced to reassure authorities in China that the government would do everything within its power to “ensure the security of foreigners visiting France,” after a group of Chinese tourists were mugged after landing at Paris’ Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle airport.

The problem of pickpocketing in Paris also made headlines in the beginning of April, after staff at the Louvre staged a walkout in protest against rampant theft at the museum, forcing it to close its doors for a day. An additional 20 police officers have since been posted at the tourist attraction as a measure to increase security.

“It’s becoming a curse. For the past year, there have been attacks almost daily,” said Jean-François Zhou, who works as the director of an agency that specialises in welcoming tourists from China. “If the attacks continue, we may be penalised for it. For the time being, coming to Paris is a dream for Chinese tourists. But that could change.”
 

Date created : 2013-04-25

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