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French police cleared in teen deaths that sparked riots

Damien Meyer, AFP | Families of the teenagers’ who were electrocuted in 2005 wait for a court hearing to start in Rennes, on May 18, 2015

A French court on Monday cleared two police officers of failing to help two youths who were electrocuted at an electricity substation in 2005 while fleeing from police. The deaths led to three weeks of riots in France's beleaguered suburbs.


The deaths of Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, following a chase by police set off three weeks of arson and running clashes with security forces.

The two officers, Sebastien Gaillemin and Stephanie Klein, stood accused of "non-assistance to individuals in danger" by failing to raise the alarm after the two youths climbed into an EDF (Électricité de France) substation in the Clichy-sous-Bois housing project northeast of Paris, where they were electrocuted.

The officers risked a five-year prison sentence and a fine of up to €75,000 ($86,000) if found guilty, but both the prosecution and defence called for them to be let off.

Supporters of the families shouted out in anger when the decision was handed down.

The officers' lawyer, Daniel Merchat, said his clients were "relieved".

"For nine years, my clients have been completely convinced that they committed neither a mistake, nor a crime. This nine-year case has left them suffering ... for them this is now a page that has turned," he told reporters.

Families of the two dead youths - as well as a third youth who escaped with burns - have launched a civil case, seeking a total of €1.6 million ($1.8 million) in compensation and damages.

'Not aware of danger'

During the sometimes emotional week-long trial in March, Gaillemin told the court that he had checked twice to see whether the teens were still in the substation and, satisfied that they were clear, left the scene.

"As he was not aware of the danger, he cannot be blamed for not acting to deal with it," said prosecutor Delphine Dewailly.

"You don't ease the pain of one drama by adding another injustice," she told the court at the trial, during which both officers broke down in tears.

Much of the case turned on one phrase uttered by Gaillemin during the chase.

According to transcripts from the police radio, he was heard to say: "They are climbing over to get to the EDF site. If they enter the EDF site, I don't give them much of a chance."

During the trial, Gaillemin said he was only aware the boys were running "towards the site" and was not sure they had actually entered it.

As the trial opened, presiding Judge Nicolas Leger said the court was "well aware of the particular suffering" of the families, but stressed it was neither "a trial of the national police" nor a ruling on the "riots that shook France".

Nevertheless, the trial has again brought to the fore the alienation felt by many in France's ghetto-like suburbs, which Prime Minister Manuel Valls said earlier this year still represent a form of "territorial, social and ethnic apartheid".

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

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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