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Hundreds rally in Paris to seek justice for murdered Jewish woman Sarah Halimi

Members of the French Jewish community and their supporters gather to protest the Paris Appeal Court's verdict in the trial of Sarah Halimi's attacker at the Place de la République in Paris on January 5, 2019.
Members of the French Jewish community and their supporters gather to protest the Paris Appeal Court's verdict in the trial of Sarah Halimi's attacker at the Place de la République in Paris on January 5, 2019. Philippe Theise

Hundreds of French Jews and their supporters rallied in Paris on Sunday calling for justice for murdered Jewish woman Sarah Halimi, after a court of appeal ruled last month that her attacker was "not criminally responsible" for his actions. 

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Ms Halimi, 65, was brutally beaten and thrown out of the window of her apartment in Paris on April 4, 2017, by Kobili Traoré, who lived in the same building as Halimi.

The court’s decision has sparked anger in the Jewish and wider French community, as many believe her killing to be an anti-Semitic act. In Paris on Sunday, they gathered to demonstrate against the court ruling at the Place de la Republique and ending at Halimi’s former home in Belleville in the city’s 11th arrondissement (district).

“My sister was massacred,” said William Attal, one of the victim’s brothers, speaking with a microphone above the crowd. 

On the day of Halimi’s killing, witnesses reported hearing Traoré shout, “I killed the shaitan,” an Arabic word that means “demon”, after he threw her body onto the building’s courtyard.

 According to the Guardian newspaper, Traoré told a judge that anti-Semitism did not compel him to attack Halimi and that he was not in his right mind. But he also said that seeing a Jewish candelabra and prayer book in the 65-year-old woman’s apartment intensified his mental state.

Georges Halimi, another of the victim’s brothers, told FRANCE 24 in 2017 that his sister and her daughter were often insulted in their building, and that his sister’s neighbour and his family would spit on the ground when she passed by.

Georges Halimi also recalled Traoré’s use of “shaitan” as a label for his sister.

“[Traoré] targeted my sister because she was Jewish,” he said.

In a hearing months after the fatal assault, investigating judges decided that Traoré’s actions were anti-Semitic in nature. But last July, several psychiatric assessments concluded that Traoré had suffered a psychotic episode after a massive use of cannabis. However, they failed to concur on whether Traoré was fully aware of his actions. The investigating judges reversed their decision, saying anti-Semitism was not a factor.

The Paris Court of Appeals subsequently did acknowledge the anti-Semitic nature of Traoré’s fatal attack in its ruling on December 19, when it also concluded that Traoré was “criminally irresponsible”. 

Ruling raises questions for Jewish community 

Traoré’s criminal exoneration and the legal process that began after the killing has raised questions about the readiness of French institutions to recognise anti-Semitic threats and attacks.

In a letter to the Procurer General of Paris two days after the Appeal Court’s ruling, Francis Kalifat, the president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF), asked, “Is there only law and no justice in our country?”

At Sunday’s rally, attendees voiced similar sentiments, and also expressed concern about the general safety of Jews in France.

“My mother was hidden for three years during the war…[she] tells me it’s the same atmosphere,” said Alexandre Borycke, 54. 

“It was an obligation to be here today,” he said.

Borycke is the president of l’Association Memoires de Convoi 6, an organisation devoted to families of French Jews who were deported during the Holocaust. 

“We say it can come back again,” he said. “We have to make testimonies because what it was during the war could happen again.”

Alexandra Glanz, 27, a criminal lawyer, noted the absence of French members of parliament. 

Maud Cabanac, 70, also said that the decision by the appeals court on Traoré’s criminal culpability matters for everyone.

“Jewish, non-Jewish, French, non-French…[the] door [is] open to any excuse for killing people,” she said.

At about 3pm, a man led the crowd in a chant. For his part, he cried out “Justice!’; his instructions to the crowd were two-fold.

“Repeat after me. First time, ‘For Sarah.’ Second time, ‘For France.’”

On the same day as the Paris rally, across the Atlantic a march against anti-Semitism was being held in New York City, which has recently seen attacks on and harassment of Jews in Brooklyn neighbourhoods.

After an attack on a rabbi’s home in Monsey in December, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told the Associated Press that anti-Semitism represented “an American cancer on the body politic”.

Oudy Bloch, who also works with the European Jewish Organization, a group that fights anti-Semitism, said Saturday that he hopes Sunday’s rally helps the public understand that attacks on Jews can lead to attacks on others.  

Anti-Semitic acts, he said, can be a “warning that the society is getting sick”.

Halimi’s lawyers are appealing the decision to the French Court of Cassation. 
 

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