(photo credit: AP)
A gang leader who orchestrated the brutal torture and murder of a young Jewish man in France in 2006 was convicted and sentenced on Friday.
Youssouf Fofana, 28, was sentenced to life in prison. He was one of 27 people on trial in the kidnapping, torture and murder of Ilan Halimi, who was 23 years old.
Halimi was found naked, handcuffed and covered with burn marks near railroad tracks in the Essonne region south of Paris on Feb. 13, 2006. He died on the way to the hospital after being held captive for more than three weeks. The horrific death revived worries in France about lingering anti-Semitism and led to deep anxiety in France's Jewish community, the largest in western Europe.
As the verdict was announced, Fofana, who headed the self-styled "gang of barbarians," mimicked applause. Fofana's sentence means he will have no possibility of parole for 22 years.
His two main accomplices, Samir Ait Abdelmalek and Jean-Christophe Soumbou, were given sentences of 15 and 18 years, respectively. Another man who was a minor at the time also received a 15-year prison term, while Emma, a young girl used to attract Halimi, was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Two others, a man and a woman, were acquitted.
A lawyer for the Halimi family, Francis Szpiner, immediately called on France's justice minister to appeal the verdict because, he said, the sentences that went to the top lieutenant's of Fofana were too light and did not reflect the gravity of the crime.
"I regret the court was particularly indulgent toward those who assisted and aided Youssouf Fofana," Szpiner said after the verdict was pronounced.
Overall, the sentences were slightly less than those sought by prosecutor Philippe Bilger.
The verdicts came after three days of deliberation following a more than 2-month-long closed-door trial, by a juvenile court because some of the defendants were minors at the time of the crimes.
The 22 others were convicted of a variety of crimes, including kidnapping by an organized group, sequestration that resulted in death, or failing to assist a person in danger. Those acting as jailers received 10 to 12 year terms.
The trial opened on April 29 and was closed to the public, and the jury had been deliberating for three days in a secret location.
Scores of police, some in full riot gear, took up posts around the Palais de Justice in central Paris.
The case attracted intense public scrutiny. While most of the trial took place behind closed doors because some of the accused were underage at the time of the crime, the courtroom was opened for the verdict.
Halimi's mother, Ruth, has told French television that she believes the proceedings should have been open to the public.
A month after the start of the trial, Fofana admitted to having stabbed and set fire to Halimi, pouring flammable liquid over him and setting it alight.
Halimi's family lawyers say the young man was targeted because he was Jewish. Critics say French police initially ignored the possibility of anti-Semitic motives in the killing, which, as the case wore on, prompted fears of resurgent anti-Semitism in France.
"We hope for an exemplary, very dissuasive sentencing," said Sammy Ghozlan, who heads the National Bureau of Awareness against Anti-Semitism, a nongovernment group.
Ghozlan argued that authorities should do more to prevent the spread of racism and anti-Semitism in impoverished French suburbs, "where the hatred of Israel is triggering anti-Jewish action."
Tensions have erupted at various points during the trial.
One of Fofana's lawyer, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, said at the time that her client was "mistreated by a political and religious marketing campaign."
Fofana fled to Ivory Coast after the killing. He was arrested there and extradited to France.
According to the investigation, Fofana's "Group of Barbarians" had allegedly tried to kidnap other people before Halimi, including some of Jewish faith, with the intent of demanding ransom.
Halimi's body was reburied in a cemetery in Jerusalem in 2007.