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Three French police officers given suspended jail terms for excessive force during 2017 arrest

By Layli Foroudi and Juliette Jabkhiro

BOBIGNY, France (Reuters) - Three French police officers were handed suspended jail sentences for using excessive force during the 2017 arrest of a young Black man, a French court ruled on Friday, sparking protests outside the courtroom calling for police officers to serve time in prison.

The arrest of Theodore Luhaka in the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois following an ID check in 2017, when he was 22, was one of several cases in recent years that has brought the French police under scrutiny for racism and violent misconduct, leading to street protests.

Policeman Marc-Antoine Castelain was given a one-year suspended prison sentence for voluntary violence for beating Luhaka and causing him serious anal injuries with a police baton, leaving him incontinent.

The judges ruled on Friday that the injury caused to Luhaka could not be considered a permanent disability. Rape charges initially brought against Castelain were dropped before the trial.

Two other officers, Jeremie Dulin and Tony Hochart, who were present and gave blows to Luhaka during his arrest, were each given three months suspended sentences.

Castelain was banned from working as a police officer in the public space for five years, while the other two officers were banned for two years.

Luhaka's lawyer, Antoine Vey, said that the decision is a "victory" that confirms that "Theo was a victim and nothing justifies that he was beaten."

However, protesters in the courthouse shouted slogans calling for police to serve prison time. "It is a masquerade to have a suspended [sentence] for mutilating Theo for life," said one of the protesters, Samia El Khalfaoui, whose nephew Souheil was killed by a police officer in 2021.

Defense lawyers told the court during the trial that the use of force by the officers was legitimate, necessary and proportionate. Castelain's lawyer said that accusations of racism against his client were unfounded.

Prosecutor Loic Pageot had sought a three-year suspended prison sentence for Castelain and judged Luhaka's injury to be a permanent disability. He asked for six months and three months suspended prison sentences for the other two officers.

"We need a police that protects us, not police officers like these who employ gratuitous violence," he told the court on Thursday, describing the violence as unnecessary and "vengeful" as Luhaka did not pose an immediate threat.

Luhaka, now aged 29, said during the trial that he has been "living dead" since the arrest. He told reporters ahead of the verdict that the length of the sentence did not matter to him as long as the officers were found guilty and that the truth was told.

Most cases against police officers for voluntary violence are dismissed before reaching trial in France, and in 2021 less than 15% of guilty judgments resulted in actual jail time served, official data shows.

(This story has been corrected to say nephew, not brother, in paragraph 8)

(Reporting by Layli Foroudi; Editing by Sandra Maler)