French police cleared over electrocution deaths

Verdict due in French electrocution deaths that caused riots
Verdict due in French electrocution deaths that caused riots

Rennes (France) (AFP) - A French court Monday cleared two police officers of failing to help two youths electrocuted in 2005, whose deaths led to three weeks of rioting in France's downtrodden suburbs.

The violent 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 electricity substation in the Clichy-sous-Bois housing project northeast of Paris.

The officers risked a five-year prison sentence and a fine of up to 75,000 euros ($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. One woman screamed "shame" and said there had been "10 years of police impunity."

"I am sickened, disappointed, disgusted, the police are untouchable," said Benna's brother Adel.

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 euros ($1.8 million) in compensation and damages.

A lawyer for the families, Jean-Pierre Mignard, said the verdict was "shocking for the civil parties."

- 'Not aware of danger' -

During the at times emotional week-long trial in March, Gaillemin told the court he had checked twice to see whether the youngsters 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 (electric company) 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.

However, the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois appeared to be taking the verdict in its stride on Monday. No incident had been reported at the beginning of the afternoon, a police source said.