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French suspects go on trial for hit-and-run in Israel

AFP | Family and friends of Lee Zeitouni demonstrate in Haifa, Israel, during a 2011 visit by then Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë.

More than three years after Israeli Pilates instructor Lee Zeitouni was killed in a Tel Aviv road accident, two Frenchmen finally go on trial in a Paris court on Thursday in a case that soured relations between France and Israel.

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On September 16, 2011, Lee Zeitouni was heading to a Tel Aviv gym to lead a Pilates class when a black BMW sports utility vehicle (SUV) containing two French tourists struck the 25-year-old Israeli woman, sending her flying into an oncoming lane where a second vehicle hit and instantly killed her.

Claude Khayat, who has dual French-Israeli nationality, was in the passenger seat and Eric Robic, a French national, was driving at around 100 kilometres per hour, exceeding the 50 kilometre-per-hour speed limit. Shortly after the accident, the two men fled to France.

More than three years and several heated diplomatic exchanges later, Khayat and Robic are finally having their day in court. Robic, the driver of the SUV, has been charged with aggravated involuntary homicide by excessive and disproportionate speed, failure to comply with a traffic light and failure to assist a person in danger. He faces 10 years in prison and a €150,000 fine. Khayat is accused of failing to help a person in danger and faces five years in prison and a €75,000 fine.

An exchange deal gone wrong

At first glance, the whole affair appears to be a tragic road accident. That’s the case that Robic’s lawyer, Françoise Cotta, plans to make. But there are some disturbing elements surrounding the defendant.

Immediately after the accident, just before leaving for the airport, Robic shaved his head, raising questions about whether the Frenchman was trying to evade surveillance cameras.

Once in France, he tried to bribe Khayat to say he was driving the SUV instead of Robic. In an interview with FRANCE 24, Gilles-William Goldnadel, a lawyer for the Zeitouni family, said, “Mr. Robic promised to pay Claude Khayat €500,000 in exchange for a false statement. But Robic did not comply with the agreement, paying [Khayat] only €100,000 and so Khayat retracted his statement.” It’s a version confirmed by Khayat’s wife.

Fleeing France for Israel, and Israel for France

Upon their return to France, the two men got caught up in other cases, exacerbating the situation.

Apparently, Robic and Khayat were in Israel not just for a visit to the Holy Land.

At that time, Robic was being investigated by French authorities for alleged fraud. According to Israeli investigators quoted by the French newspaper Le Figaro, the two men “fled Israel to escape Israeli justice after having fled France to escape French justice”.

According to Israeli media reports, the two men also had links to the Tel Aviv underworld.

In addition to these accusations, there were revelations of Robic’s extravagant lifestyle: a luxury-car lover, the Frenchman frequented prostitution dens and had 16 telephone lines, reported the French newspaper, Le Figaro, quoting Israeli investigators.

Last month, the two men were jailed on suspicion of participating in a scam surrounding the sale of leased cars through false advertising, using fake transfers and receipts.

France refuses extradition to Israel

The case has made headlines in Israel, where there have been calls for the extradition of the two suspects. But French officials note that the law does not allow the extradition of its nationals outside the European Union.

Before the outcry sparked by the extradition refusal, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the wife of then French president Nicolas Sarkozy, tried to calm the situation by writing to the family of the young woman to extend her condolences and assure the Zeitouni family that France was doing its utmost to ensure that justice was served in the case.

Sarkozy himself also mentioned the case at the annual dinner of the powerful French Jewish umbrella organisation, CRIF (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France) in February 2012.

Zeitouni’s parents eventually filed a complaint in France and a criminal investigation for aggravated involuntary manslaughter was opened in July 2012 under a law which, in certain circumstances, allows French courts to try nationals for crimes committed outside French territory.

The high-profile trial opens in a Paris court Thursday under intense scrutiny from both the French and Israeli media.

In an interview with FRANCE 24, Khayat’s lawyer Régis Meliodon said his client was “waiting for this moment with impatience and anxiety, to apologise to the [Zeitouni] family and move on".

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