French police under new scrutiny after chokehold death


Paris (AFP)

France's police forces faced new pressure Tuesday after the family of a delivery man who died shortly after his arrest last January demanded action against excessive force, including a ban on chokeholds.

The victim, 42-year-old Cedric Chouviat, had been stopped for a traffic control near the Eiffel Tower in Paris that degenerated into a heated exchange of insults.

A review by investigators of videos that emerged this week showed that Chouviat, who has North African origins, said "I'm suffocating" seven times before his body went limp while being pinned down by several officers.

He was not breathing and had no pulse when emergency services arrived and brought him to hospital, where he was pronounced dead two days later.

Four officers were taken in for questioning last week in an inquiry into "involuntary homicide," but so far they have not faced disciplinary action.

"We still don't understand why they haven't been suspended, and we don't understand why this chokehold technique still hasn't been banned," Chouviat's daughter Sofia said at a press conference alongside her family and lawyers.

"We want a firm response from President Emmanuel Macron," she said.

France has seen a series of protests in recent weeks against alleged brutality and racism by police, a long-simmering issue that has gained momentum with the killing of George Floyd in police custody in the US.

The protests have focused in particular on the case of a young black man, Adama Traore, who died in police custody in 2016 in a Paris suburb. An investigation is still under way.

"France is not the United States, but France is becoming like the United States," said William Bourdon, a lawyer for Chouviat's family.

- 'Devastated' -

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced a ban on chokeholds by law enforcement earlier this month but backtracked after a backlash by police unions, who held demonstrations across France.

Castaner later said chokeholds would continue to be used at least through the summer while officials sought alternative techniques.

"It's too late for Cedric, but this is a good opportunity for the government to stop giving in to police unions' blackmail and question things," said Chouviat's widow, Doria.

Lawyers for the four officers said their clients did not hear the words "I'm suffocating," which they learned about only while being questioned last week.

"The officers were shocked and devastated, because obviously if they had heard these words they would have stopped struggling immediately," Thibault de Montbrial told journalists Tuesday.

The officers will be brought before a judge in July.

France's police watchdog said this month that it had received almost 1,500 complaints against officers last year, of which roughly half were for alleged violence against civilians.

On Tuesday, A court handed a suspended 18-month prison sentence to a police officer who struck a 62-year-old woman during a "yellow vest" anti-government protest last year.

In a scene captured by surveillance video, the officer hits the woman with his baton twice on the back of her head, causing injuries that required 12 stitches.

Also on Tuesday, four riot police were to be brought before a judge after being detained for questioning over alleged violence against protesters in a fast food restaurant during a yellow vest demo near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, a judicial source told AFP.

Several journalists were in the restaurant as well, and filmed some officers striking people even as they lay immobile on the ground.

Critics accused police of heavy-handed tactics during much of the yellow vest rebellion, including the use of rubber bullets that caused around two-dozen people to lose an eye, and explosive stun grenades to disperse protesters.

Only a handful of officers have faced trial over the claims.