Two sons of France

In Paris 2003, young Jewish disc jockey Sebastien Selam was brutally murdered by his childhood friend Adel Amastaibou. The killer was declared insane, sent to a mental institution without trial - and allowed out on weekends. Recently the Selam family was given new hope for justice.

January 24, 2010 19:36
The victim, Sebastian Selam.

Sebastian Selam 311. (photo credit: Alain Azria)


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After yet another frenzied night spinning R & B and house tunes in a top Paris nightclub, Sebastien Selam went home to his mother just off Place Colonel Fabien in the 10th district, not far from the hilly Buttes Chaumont Park. It's a typical five-story Paris apartment building owned by the huge AGF insurance company, with small balconies lined with flowerpots, but surrounded by city-owned housing projects in a bustling neighborhood with the tough sons of immigrant families hanging out on the streets.

After thrilling dancers with his spinning style, the 23-year-old DJ Lam.C, as he was known in the club scene, wanted nothing more than to sleep, but he ran into his longtime neighbor and former buddy, Adel Amastaibou, who said, Let's check out the garage a second."

Lam.C - Selam with syllables reversed in the "verlan" slang spoken by many young people in tougher circles, especially among Arab and Sephardi kids - was a young rising star of the Paris night, spinning in the Queen and Bains-Douches clubs, and the pride of certain locals, the Jewish homeboy making it big in the mainstream club scene. But he was also making a lot of young Maghrebi Muslim boys in the projects jealous. They envied Lam.C's success and the money he was pulling down, while they, also all born in France, live on the edge of society, hold minimum-wage jobs and do not feel particularly French.

In the 10th and adjacent 19th district, the large clothing stores, fruit and vegetable stores and several large supermarkets are Chinese owned and run. The employees are all Asian, or are from a number of African countries. No Chinese store or restaurant owner will hire an Arab, whether born in North Africa, known in slang as a "blédard", or in France, known as a "beur."

So, at least some of the beurs hanging out and going nowhere in the projects can become petty criminals, dealing soft or hard drugs, fueled by a hatred for everything French.

But the strongest feature of this peculiar mélange of identities among certain young Maghrebi Muslims born in France is a hatred of Jews, including their own neighbors. In return, young Jews have taken to hanging out exclusively with other Jews, and to hate and in many cases fear many young French Maghrebis and Africans.

There are several high-friction neighborhoods, home to both communities. One is the 19th district, the scene of regular clashes over the years, including several that have made ugly headlines.

But this was in November 2003. DJ Lam.C was working the top clubs, recording collections, making a good living.

"Lam.C had a real signature when he spun and people came to dance when he was in the booth," said Dannee Accos, a Paris DJ mix club producer who lives in the same 10th district neighborhood, but came to France as a child from Jaffa. "When Lam.C first started spinning, his friend Adel was carrying his disks and equipment for him in the club. They were together. But right away, I didn't like Adel and didn't want him in the Bains Douches club. He had that street aggressiveness, a jealousy about other people's money. You could feel it."

Accos chooses his words carefully when speaking about Jewish-Arab relations in Paris. He says that in the street, in the projects, the lines have been drawn and there is no going back, no matter how French officials go on about national identity and the republican values that should characterize all the young people born in France.

"Young Jews feel Jewish and French, to one degree or another, but many young Arab kids have crystallized their own failure to integrate here, whether it is their fault or the fault of France, and I am really not able to discuss that, so don't quote me, but on the street they have crystallized that anger in a hatred of Jews, for a lot of different reasons," he explains. "But in the world of people working in music at night, it is a different story. You have a lot of people from different backgrounds, and they make money, and they don't care if you are Jewish or Arab or whatever."

Accos points out that Lam.C's business partner was of Muslim Senegalese origin, and his manager of Chinese origin.

Lam.C's brother, Stephan Selam, who had left Paris a year earlier to live in Vincennes just to the east, put it very clearly. "In the projects, you have a lot of idiots among the Maghrebis who do nothing with their lives and blame the system for their failures," he says. "The smart guys were out trying to get ahead in life, but the idiots were hanging out. They began hating the Jews around the time of the second intifada, and it got violent. It was clearly anti-Semitic violence, but the French officials refused to see it like that. They thought it was about being poor and rejected by the system, but it was pure hatred. To be honest, there are dumb Jews too, but they don't go around beating people up for nothing.

"In the night world, you have intelligent people making money together, Jews, Arabs, Africans and French French. When people make money together, they respect each other. It is very simple."

BACK IN the garage at 5 Rue Louis Blanc, Adel Amastaibou took out a long knife and stabbed Sebastien Salem repeatedly in the chest, killing him. He went upstairs to his mother's apartment and told her and then the police when they arrived, "I killed a Jew, I will go to paradise. Allah made me do it."

"My brother dropped his guard," said Stephan Selam. "He should not have gone down to the garage with him. Adel was still dealing hash in the projects across the street. The local boys had been bugging him, saying, you see your Jew friend is making it big in the clubs and you're still on the sidewalk. But my brother had a passion, the music. He was a DJ. I guess he didn't pay attention to the rest."

The legal manipulations that followed were a nightmare for the Selam family. A panel of experts found that Adel Amastaibou was legally insane, thus not responsible for the act of murder. So there would be no trial. The doctors examined him with an empty rap sheet, and assumed he had had no brushes with the law. The declaration of his legal insanity and confinement to a mental hospital that ended the case was never sent to Juliette Selam, Lam.C's mother. While she was mourning her son, Amastaibou was returning to the projects on the weekend, on leave from the mental hospital, to party with the boys.

Lawyer Axel Metzker took the case three years ago, and found that the empty rap sheet was an outrage. Amastaibou had at least 10 prior violent convictions, including assaulting rabbis, threatening pregnant Jewish women and making Molotov cocktails, but the panel of expert doctors had known nothing about them. But the fact that Juliette Selam had never received the letter from the court was the legal technicality on which to begin an appeals procedure, which the lawyer did.

After several hearings, judges in a Paris appeals court upheld the original decision that Amastaibou was legally insane and thus not responsible for the act of murder. They rejected all calls for a murder trial, thus keeping him in hospital and out of sight. That was in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

"Instead of examining the details of what was certainly a anti-Semitic hate crime, with a touch of jealousy and craziness, no doubt, the medical experts found him legally insane and the French legal system shut down the whole process," says longtime community activist Gil Taieb, vice president of both the Jewish Social Fund and the Consistoire. "Officials did not want the public to know anything. The French do this; they close their eyes. They are in total denial about anti-Semitism here. The real question is why."

Taieb said not everyone is the same in the projects and that Amastaibou had insulted the Muslims of France by using Islam to justify the murder of a Jew. "In fact, many Jews and Arabs or Muslims get along very well together in neighborhoods like Colonel Fabien," he noted.

LAWYER METZKER gets very excited very easily. He told journalists at a recent hearing at the Palais de Justice on January 5, "France does not want yet another anti-Semitism trial. It will show how the system has failed. Everyone knows that Adel is not crazy. I think that orders were given somewhere, somehow."

"We are very disappointed," said Juliette Selam at the same hearing. "And we are afraid that when he gets out of the hospital, he will do it again. He will come back to the projects. I used to give that boy meals." She was clearly overwhelmed by the entire situation.

"You hear that? My client is afraid. The French legal system is not protecting my client," the lawyer was yelling at the cameras. "I demand a trial. He's not crazy." Metzker's eyes were popping out of his head. He was raging.

The journalists recorded it all without a trace of emotion. They were simply doing their jobs. And strangely enough, the last appeals court hearing did not make it onto the news at all that day, except for two lines by the presenter on France 3 TV. All that emotion never reached the screen.

Brother Stephan Selam finds the gap between the courtroom and the street hard to believe. "Adel played this to perfection," he says. "The experts find him crazy because he smokes a lot of hash and does coke, and the judges believe them, of course, so there is no trial, but on the street, everyone, Jews, Arabs, everyone knows he was playing them. When he was dealing hash and making money, he knew what he was doing, right? He's a bit nuts, OK, but legally insane? C'mon!!"

Stephan is fed up. "I am disgusted with the French system," he said after the last hearing. "I want out of this country. Yeah, I'd go to Israel. My mother? I don't know. She is overwhelmed. Ask her."

Juliette Selam came to France from Morocco as a young girl. So did Amastaibou's mother. "This never could have happened in Morocco, never, not in the 20th or 21st century," she says. "This kind of hatred doesn't end up in murder there. And you can be sure that if it did, her son would be in prison today, convicted of murder."

Khadija Ait Sadi is an educator in a tough northern suburb of Paris. Born in Algeria and Arabic speaking from an educated family, she sees the problems in another light, in addition to anti-Semitism.

"Why is there apparently nothing in this boy Adel to make him feel French after he went to French public schools?" she asked. "There was nothing in his values to stop him from killing a Jewish guy in his building, his childhood buddy, French just like him, no sense of values. How is it that he identifies more with Palestinians, when he probably cannot find Palestine on a map, than with another guy in his own building? I think this indicates a failure of the French system. And maybe this is why the French did not want to bring him to trial, because all this would come out, how all these Maghrebi guys, not in a suburb far from Paris where everyone is an immigrant, but in the heart of Paris, are not integrated."

Ait Sadi also noted that Muslims in Paris would not be happy to read headlines saying "Allah made me do it." "Killing a Jew in the name of Allah is not something that we associate with modern secular France," she said. "That's the kind of negative publicity that Muslims in France can live without. Maybe the French were afraid of repercussions."

"Frankly, it is hard to believe that the experts were not informed that he had a record of convictions when they determined that he was legally insane, and worse, that there is some political pressure not to hold a trial," said Michel Lachkar, a TV journalist and the son of Jewish immigrants from Morocco. "That is not supposed to happen in France. I don't know what to believe."

AND THEN Justice Minister Michele Aliot-Marie decided to overturn the appeals court ruling. She ordered this case to be heard by a cour de cassation, the French equivalent of a supreme court judge or panel of judges. No date has been set for another hearing.

"Nothing is very clear here, but yes, I am very happy for the Selam family," says lawyer Metzker. "There was one chance in a thousand that this would reach the cour de cassation, and it did. It's a miracle. And I think there will be others."

The press officer for Aliot-Marie was more precise. "The appeals court had asked experts to decide if the security measures taken were a match for the medical measures concerning the internment of Amastaibou," explained Guillaume Didier. "But Justice Minister Aliot-Marie believes that according to the law, that decision should have been made by a judge, not experts. And so this is going to the French equivalent of a supreme court."

What about the anti-Semitic aspect of this case? "I think the very decision to send this case to the cour de cassation has the effect of lifting the silence on its anti-Semitic aspects," commented Gil Taieb.

"No comment," said the Justice Ministry spokesman. "This is about a legal technicality, nothing more."

"This is very important, the fact that this breakthrough has nothing to do with a debate on anti-Semitism or whether the killer is legally insane or not," said Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF, the central Jewish council of France. "It is simply a legal technicality. As far as French officials are concerned, the killer is insane, very simply because medical experts found him to be so."

Prasquier has followed this case closely, and one aspect infuriated him early on. Adel Amastaibou was put in a mental hospital, but until May 2007 was given permission to leave the premises on weekends. "The doctors thought it would be good for his mental health to return home, but never once considered the health and safety of the family of the victim, the Selam family," he explained.

"He was back in the same building. These public health psychiatrists showed a total lack of sensitivity for the health and security of the Selam family, and I find that shocking. Did they even know if he was taking his prescribed medication? The doctors put the Selam family in danger.

"This case has been disturbing for other reasons as well. The murder involves anti-Semitism and the friction between young Jews and Maghrebi Arabs here, jealousy, the social pressure and rivalry from the housing projects, and his being at least a bit crazy. But from day one, the courts here have focused only on the medical aspects, and never on the socio-psychological-educational aspects, as if they do not matter. And that is very disturbing."

So is this a breakthrough the family and lawyer had been hoping for? Is it a mere legal technicality to keep the murderer in hospital a little while longer, or could he be declared sane and fit for trial somewhere down the road?

Suddenly Stephan Selam has a grain of hope in the French legal system, even though the only sure thing is that his brother, Sebastien Selam, a.k.a. DJ Lam.C, is dead.

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