The trial of two Frenchmen who hit and killed an Israeli woman while driving an SUV in Tel Aviv in 2011, then fled to France to avoid prosecution, was suspended on Thursday after one of their lawyers was attacked in the court’s bathroom.
Eric Robic, 40, and Claude Khayat, 35, have admitted that they drove into Lee Zeitouni, a 25-year-old physiotherapy student, in Tel Aviv in September 2011. She was crossing a street in a pedestrian zone.
The two men boarded a flight to France a few hours after hitting Zeitouni. France would not extradite the two men to face trial in Israel because France does not extradite its nationals, except to European Union member states.
Earlier on Thursday, Robic, the driver, told the court, “I was a coward.”
Robic, who had left a nightclub just before the incident, is accused of aggravated involuntary manslaughter, failure to comply with a red light and failure to assist a person in danger, and faces up to 10 years in prison and a €150,000 fine if convicted. He admitted to consuming three drinks of vodka and two drinks of whiskey on the evening of the accident.
Khayat, who has dual French-Israeli citizenship, is charged with failure to assist a person in danger and could face up to five years in prison and a €75,000 fine.
They have acknowledged the facts, but deny going through a red light.
The criminal trial was suspended until Wednesday after Khayat’s lawyer, Régis Méliodon, was struck in the face in the court’s bathroom.
Robic and Khayat are currently in jail pending a separate French investigation into organized fraud and money-laundering.
Robic was convicted in April in another fraud case and has six other convictions on his record, including for driving under the influence.
They were arrested in September 2013, after the opening of an investigation on July 11, 2012, following the promise made by then-president Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla, to the family that “justice must be done.”
On Wednesday, supporters of the Zeitouni family brandished posters demanding “Justice for Lee” in front of the Palace of Justice in Paris, where the trial is being held.
The highly anticipated trial session at the Court of Correction was attended by some 500 persons, among them representatives of the Committee for Lee Zeitouni, and the parents of the victim, who came from Israel and saw the accused for the first time.
The trial looks to be the culmination of a case that has soured relations between Israel and France.
Due to a lawsuit by Lee Zeitouni’s boyfriend and the committee he created, the scandal had become a cause célèbre in both Israel and in France. The row over what to do with her suspected killers has worsened relations made already tense by France’s support for Palestinians.
Lawyers acting for the two men have said their clients admitted to being in the car at the time of the accident and were ready to face French courts, but did not want to return or be sent to Israel.
Itzik Zeitouni, the father of Lee, said on Wednesday he expected French justice to punish the two suspects severely.
“It was not an accident. He who gets into a car, after drinking and [having fun] all night, is a murderer,” he said.
“What sort of human beings are they?” Lee’s mother, Kate, asked.
Lee’s boyfriend, Roy Peled, said the defendants “must admit they had committed a crime and should go to prison.”
And Khayat’s lawyer, Méliodon, said his client’s action was “unspeakable.”
He told the press Khayat was “anticipating the trial with impatience in order to give explanations to the family and apologize.”
Itzik Zeitouni said, “These people have to be put away [for a long time].”
“I expect the court tomorrow to be able to see that and to see how bad they are. Not just in regard to our accident. And I think that the court is able to see that, and when they realize that, they will act accordingly.
They will make the decisions accordingly and will punish them as severely as possible.”
Regarding seeing the suspects for the first time, in court, Itzik Zeitouni said on Wednesday that he was expecting it would make them realize the gravity of their actions.
“At the moment I feel totally indifferent, but I don’t know how I’ll feel tomorrow. On the whole I think I would like to tell them or to make sure that when they look at their children they think of mine, of the life they took. Perhaps they will feel something,” the bereaved father said.
Gilles-William Goldnadel, the Zeitouni family’s lawyer, said he was confident about the sentence that the suspects would receive and that the legal case contained enough incriminating evidence against them.
“I think we started this last phase in a spirit of confidence from the French public opinion from the French justice. Serenity is not the right word in relation to this tragedy. But in any case, we have the feeling that the legal file speaks for itself and is also overwhelming,” Goldnadel said.Reuters contributed to this report.