(photo credit: AP)
A crime that brought religious tensions to a boiling point in France and shook the world Jewish community to its core was thrust back into the spotlight on Wednesday, as a self-proclaimed "gang of barbarians" went on trial for the murder of Ilan Halimi, a French-Jewish cellphone salesman who was kidnapped, tortured and found dying near a railroad track south of Paris in February 2006.
Halimi, who was 23 at the time of his murder, was reportedly lured by a young French-Iranian woman to his kidnappers' lair in a housing project in Bagneux - a southern suburb of Paris - in late January 2006. There, he was overpowered by a gang of some 21 Arab and African youths, who, using a key provided by the housing project's janitor, tied Halimi to a chair in the basement, where he was savagely tortured for the next 24 days.
Halimi was found on February 13, 2006, naked, tied and handcuffed to a tree near a railroad track in the Parisian suburbs, with burns from acid and flammable liquid covering 80 percent of his body, multiple stab wounds, as well as a severed ear and toe. He died on his way to the hospital.
Now, with the trial under way in Paris, the wounds from 2006 are reopening painfully. At the start of the proceedings on Wednesday, the gang's alleged leader, a French national born to immigrants from the Ivory Coast named Youssouf Fofana, entered the courtroom yelling "Allahu akbar," and scuffles broke out between his supporters and Jewish youths who had gathered at the courthouse to voice their outrage over the crime.
Bearded and wearing a white tracksuit, Fofana gave his identity during formal questioning by the judge as "Arabs African, Salafist revolt, barbarian army," recalling his gang's self-appointed name, "Les Barbares" - the Barbarians.
Fofana also reportedly smirked at Halimi's family members in the courtroom and, in a further provocation, the 28-year-old said he was born on February 13, 2006, in Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois- the exact date and location of Halimi's death.
Members of the French-Jewish community told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that, just as the grisly murder in 2006 sent tensions soaring between Parisian Jews and Muslims, the trial itself has once again highlighted the deep rifts that exist between the two communities, who often live side-by-side in the blue-collar, low income banlieues, or outlying suburbs of Paris.
"A few days before the trial began, some young Jews tried to put up Ilan's picture around Paris, and they were confronted by groups of Arabs," Serge Golan, a reporter for the Hamodia newspaper in Paris told the Post. "Fights broke out between the two sides. The trial is certainly bringing back all the old tensions, if they ever really went away in the first place."
Another point of contention, Golan explained, was now over the framing of the crime itself. Fofana stands accused of kidnapping, sequestration, torture and murder - but the charge sheet also includes anti-Semitism, which French law considers an "aggravating circumstance" requiring the stiffest sentences. Fofana faces life in prison.
"The Jewish community understands that this was an anti-Semitic crime, that Halimi was killed because he was Jewish," Golan said.
But Fofana's lawyers, Golan continued, have attempted to frame the murder not as an anti-Semitic murder, but a kidnapping with the sole intent of financial gain.
However, even in that version of the story, Fofana and the others who have been accused, allegedly singled out Halimi because he was Jewish, and "his family had money."
"That's a well-known defensive line, and it won't hold up for a minute," David Roche, the head of the Jewish Agency's delegation in France told the Post on Thursday.
It also contrasts starkly with the fact that the Halimis live in the same low-income suburbs as the accused.
"The outcome of this trial is going to send a message, depending on what happens, to either the Jews or the Muslims living in France," Roche continued. "Hopefully, that message will be that anti-Semitism is unacceptable in France, and those who stand accused will be held responsible for their actions."
Throughout the harrowing ordeal, Halimi's captors placed phone calls to his family in which they demanded a ransom of â‚¬450,000 for his freedom. They also reportedly recited verses from the Koran while Halimi could be heard screaming in the background.
A book co-authored in part by Ilan's mother, Ruth Halimi, titled 24 Days, claims that French police refused to face the anti-Semitic character of the crime and told the Halimis to stay silent during the ordeal.
The book also states that the Halimis were ordered not to seek aid in order to pay the ransom, nor show their son's photo to people who might have come forward with information about his whereabouts.
The exact nature of the crime, while undeniably anti-Semitic to the Jewish community, will now have to be proven in court. And according to Golan, Fofana's lawyers are the ones to do it.
"Mr. Fofana is being represented by two of France's most provocative and talkative lawyers," he said. "One, Emmanuel Ludot, was on Saddam Hussein's defense team. The other is Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, best known for her jailhouse romance with convicted terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, also known as Carlos the Jackal."
Cotant-Peyre has maintained that her client has been demonized by a "political-religious" campaign to portray him as the devil, but Fofana has admitted all the charges against him except the accusation that he stabbed Halimi to death.
In the days that followed Halimi's death, French police arrested 21 people in connection with the crime, including the young woman who was used to lure Halimi to his captors.
Fofana fled to his parents' native Ivory Coast, from where he made death threats to Halimi's father and girlfriend. He was arrested on February 23, 2006, and was extradited back to France on March 4 of the same year.
At the time, Halimi's murder was followed by an intense outcry in France from both the Jewish community and the general public. Six French associations called for a mass demonstration against racism and anti-Semitism in Paris two weeks after Halimi's death, which was attended by tens of thousands of people, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Cardinal Archbishop of Paris Jean-Marie Lustiger, and former French prime minister Linoel Jospin.