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France

French police go on trial for teen deaths that kicked off riots

© Olivier Laban-Mattei, AFP | Ten years after the deaths of Zyed Benna (left) and Bouna Traoré (right) two officers are on trial for "failing to help a person in danger"

Text by Bahar MAKOOI

Latest update : 2015-03-16

Two police officers go on trial Monday in France over the deaths of two teens in 2005, which sparked the violent riots in the Paris suburbs of Clichy-sous-Bois and elsewhere in France.

Officers Sébastien Gaillemin and Stéphanie Klein face a court in Rennes, west of Paris, on charges of failing to help a person in danger, and thus causing the deaths of two teens in Clichy-sous-Bois on October 27, 2005.

The youths, Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traoré, 15, died after they were electrocuted while hiding from police in a high-voltage electricity substation near the housing project where they lived.

Their deaths triggered violent riots in the banlieues, or suburbs, of Paris, which spread to housing estates across the country. As unrest spread in immigrant-dominated, low-income neighbourhoods, the French government was forced to declare a state of national emergency after more than 9,000 vehicles, as well as business and public buildings, were burned.

Nearly 10 years later, and after a long legal battle by the families of the victims, the officers are finally facing charges in France’s most important police trial in a decade.

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

Young police officers posted to difficult neighbourhoods

The inexperience of the two officers will be an important point in the case. One of the defendants, who responded to calls from the police station of Livry-Gargan on the day of the tragedy, told Loic Lecouplier, a representative of the police union Alliance en Seine-Saint-Denis, that she barely knew the area at the time. “I did not know that there was a transformer, I didn’t visualize the topography,” she said.

“The [people on call] were very young at the time, barely out of school. In Seine-Saint-Denis, that was the problem. We got a lot of interns, sometimes 40 percent of the workforce,” said Lecouplier.

The 21 days of rioting that followed led to the declaration of the country’s first state of emergency for more than 20 years, exposing the mistrust between youths and police in France’s impoverished suburbs that are rife with high unemployment, discrimination and poor access to public services.

Since 2005, reforms have been put in place within the police force, with more supervision and incentives for officers to stay in sensitive areas.

“Because of these terrible events, the wait for these services was finally over,” said Agnès Faulcon, who runs a social centre in Clichy-sous-Bois. Faulcon says that the “urban revolt of 2005” sparked a collective awareness of the problems facing residents of France’s impoverished banlieues.

“It’s also a way to remember that these citizens deserve the rights of the Republic,” said Faulcon, who has seen the neighborhood change over the last ten years - with high-rise towers torn down in exchange for smaller residences, some of which are even equipped with solar panels.

Following the reforms, a social worker and two representatives to handle police-community relations are permanently posted in new police stations to assist residents with complaints, particularly for cases of violence against women.

The day the ‘fuse of the city was blown’

With a new police station in Clichy-sous-Bois, Malek, a 19-year-old high school student, says he sees the police more often, but doesn’t see an improvement in the relations between citizens and their police force. “There is no dialogue", said the management student. He remembers Benna well -- the teen lived just across the street from him in Clichy-sous-Bois.

The day Benna died, Malek says that the “fuse of the city was blown". He was just nine at that time and his city was immersed in darkness.

Malek still remembers the riots, and the immense cloud of smoke hovering over his neighbourhood. Three days after the deaths of the teenagers, Malek says he managed to escape his mother’s hawk-eyed watch to go down into the streets. He watched the cars burn and heard his neighbours’ cries.

“Because this case isn’t over we continue to think about it", said Malek. “Out of respect for Benna and Traoré, and so that their families can rest easy, those responsible need to be judged like all other citizens.”

He has been following the case on the news channels, and even on his iPhone, which is always in his pocket.

If the two officers are acquitted, Malek fears a fresh explosion of violence. The city retains a reputation for crime and violence and the teenagers of yesterday, now young adults, experience discrimination when they have to indicate their address on their resumes.

A long wait for justice

The long-delayed trial of the two police officers has also fed into a sense of official abandonment in the community.

For the families of the two youths, it has been a long wait for justice. Following the boys’ deaths, judges opened an investigation and recommended that the police officers face trial. But the state prosecutor, arguing that no crime had been committed, went to the appeals court and the case was dropped. The families of the victims continued to pursue the case through higher appeals courts.

Nearly a decade later, Bouna’s brother, Siyakha Traoré, says he’s still angry and confused, but he hopes the trial will help him “finally know and understand” what happened on that day.

“For me it’s a goal, so we can finally mourn, and not dishonour them, so this can bring awareness to everybody,” said Traoré.

Date created : 2015-03-16

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