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.

Sebastian Selam 311 (photo credit: Alain Azria)
Sebastian Selam 311
(photo credit: Alain Azria)
After yet another frenzied night spinningR & B and house tunes in a top Paris nightclub, Sebastien Selamwent home to his mother just off Place Colonel Fabien in the 10thdistrict, not far from the hilly Buttes Chaumont Park. It's a typicalfive-story Paris apartment building owned by the huge AGF insurancecompany, with small balconies lined with flowerpots, but surrounded bycity-owned housing projects in a bustling neighborhood with the toughsons of immigrant families hanging out on the streets.
Afterthrilling dancers with his spinning style, the 23-year-old DJ Lam.C, ashe was known in the club scene, wanted nothing more than to sleep, buthe 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 amongArab and Sephardi kids - was a young rising star of the Paris night,spinning in the Queen and Bains-Douches clubs, and the pride of certainlocals, the Jewish homeboy making it big in the mainstream club scene.But he was also making a lot of young Maghrebi Muslim boys in theprojects jealous. They envied Lam.C's success and the money he waspulling down, while they, also all born in France, live on the edge ofsociety, hold minimum-wage jobs and do not feel particularly French.
In the 10th and adjacent 19th district, the large clothingstores, fruit and vegetable stores and several large supermarkets areChinese owned and run. The employees are all Asian, or are from anumber of African countries. No Chinese store or restaurant owner willhire 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 theprojects can become petty criminals, dealing soft or hard drugs, fueledby a hatred for everything French.
But the strongest feature of this peculiar mélange ofidentities among certain young Maghrebi Muslims born in France is ahatred of Jews, including their own neighbors. In return, young Jewshave taken to hanging out exclusively with other Jews, and to hate andin many cases fear many young French Maghrebis and Africans.
Thereare several high-friction neighborhoods, home to both communities. Oneis 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 todance when he was in the booth," said Dannee Accos, a Paris DJ mix clubproducer who lives in the same 10th district neighborhood, but came toFrance as a child from Jaffa. "When Lam.C first started spinning, hisfriend 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 wanthim in the Bains Douches club. He had that street aggressiveness, ajealousy about other people's money. You could feel it."
Accos chooses his words carefully when speaking aboutJewish-Arab relations in Paris. He says that in the street, in theprojects, the lines have been drawn and there is no going back, nomatter how French officials go on about national identity and therepublican values that should characterize all the young people born inFrance.
"Young Jews feel Jewish and French, to one degree or another,but many young Arab kids have crystallized their own failure tointegrate here, whether it is their fault or the fault of France, and Iam really not able to discuss that, so don't quote me, but on thestreet they have crystallized that anger in a hatred of Jews, for a lotof different reasons," he explains. "But in the world of people workingin music at night, it is a different story. You have a lot of peoplefrom different backgrounds, and they make money, and they don't care ifyou 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 leftParis a year earlier to live in Vincennes just to the east, put it veryclearly. "In the projects, you have a lot of idiots among the Maghrebiswho do nothing with their lives and blame the system for theirfailures," he says. "The smart guys were out trying to get ahead inlife, but the idiots were hanging out. They began hating the Jewsaround the time of the second intifada, and it got violent. It wasclearly anti-Semitic violence, but the French officials refused to seeit like that. They thought it was about being poor and rejected by thesystem, 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 moneytogether, Jews, Arabs, Africans and French French. When people makemoney together, they respect each other. It is very simple."
BACK IN the garage at 5 Rue Louis Blanc, Adel Amastaibou tookout a long knife and stabbed Sebastien Salem repeatedly in the chest,killing him. He went upstairs to his mother's apartment and told herand then the police when they arrived, "I killed a Jew, I will go toparadise. Allah made me do it."
"My brother dropped his guard," said Stephan Selam. "He shouldnot have gone down to the garage with him. Adel was still dealing hashin 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 andyou'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 theSelam family. A panel of experts found that Adel Amastaibou was legallyinsane, thus not responsible for the act of murder. So there would beno trial. The doctors examined him with an empty rap sheet, and assumedhe had had no brushes with the law. The declaration of his legalinsanity and confinement to a mental hospital that ended the case wasnever sent to Juliette Selam, Lam.C's mother. While she was mourningher son, Amastaibou was returning to the projects on the weekend, onleave from the mental hospital, to party with the boys.
Lawyer Axel Metzker took the case three yearsago, and found that the empty rap sheet was an outrage. Amastaibou hadat least 10 prior violent convictions, including assaulting rabbis,threatening pregnant Jewish women and making Molotov cocktails, but thepanel of expert doctors had known nothing about them. But the fact thatJuliette Selam had never received the letter from the court was thelegal technicality on which to begin an appeals procedure, which thelawyer did.
Afterseveral hearings, judges in a Paris appeals court upheld the originaldecision that Amastaibou was legally insane and thus not responsiblefor the act of murder. They rejected all calls for a murder trial, thuskeeping him in hospital and out of sight. That was in 2004, 2005 and2006.
"Instead of examining the details of what was certainly aanti-Semitic hate crime, with a touch of jealousy and craziness, nodoubt, the medical experts found him legally insane and the Frenchlegal system shut down the whole process," says longtime communityactivist Gil Taieb, vice president of both the Jewish Social Fund andthe Consistoire. "Officials did not want the public to know anything.The French do this; they close their eyes. They are in total denialabout anti-Semitism here. The real question is why."
Taieb said not everyone is the same in the projects and thatAmastaibou had insulted the Muslims of France by using Islam to justifythe murder of a Jew. "In fact, many Jews and Arabs or Muslims get alongvery well together in neighborhoods like Colonel Fabien," he noted.
LAWYER METZKER gets very excited very easily. He toldjournalists at a recent hearing at the Palais de Justice on January 5,"France does not want yet another anti-Semitism trial. It will show howthe system has failed. Everyone knows that Adel is not crazy. I thinkthat orders were given somewhere, somehow."
"We are very disappointed," said Juliette Selam at the samehearing. "And we are afraid that when he gets out of the hospital, hewill do it again. He will come back to the projects. I used to givethat boy meals." She was clearly overwhelmed by the entire situation.
"Youhear that? My client is afraid. The French legal system is notprotecting my client," the lawyer was yelling at the cameras. "I demanda 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 lastappeals 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 emotionnever reached the screen.
BrotherStephan Selam finds the gap between the courtroom and the street hardto believe. "Adel played this to perfection," he says. "The expertsfind him crazy because he smokes a lot of hash and does coke, and thejudges believe them, of course, so there is no trial, but on thestreet, everyone, Jews, Arabs, everyone knows he was playing them. Whenhe 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," hesaid after the last hearing. "I want out of this country. Yeah, I'd goto Israel. My mother? I don't know. She is overwhelmed. Ask her."
Juliette Selam came to France from Morocco as a young girl. Sodid Amastaibou's mother. "This never could have happened in Morocco,never, not in the 20th or 21st century," she says. "This kind of hatreddoesn't end up in murder there. And you can be sure that if it did, herson would be in prison today, convicted of murder."
Khadija Ait Sadi is an educator in a tough northern suburb ofParis. Born in Algeria and Arabic speaking from an educated family, shesees the problems in another light, in addition to anti-Semitism.
"Why is there apparently nothing in this boy Adel to make himfeel French after he went to French public schools?" she asked. "Therewas nothing in his values to stop him from killing a Jewish guy in hisbuilding, his childhood buddy, French just like him, no sense ofvalues. How is it that he identifies more with Palestinians, when heprobably cannot find Palestine on a map, than with another guy in hisown 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 asuburb far from Paris where everyone is an immigrant, but in the heartof Paris, are not integrated."
Ait Sadi also noted that Muslims in Paris would not be happy toread headlines saying "Allah made me do it." "Killing a Jew in the nameof Allah is not something that we associate with modern secularFrance," she said. "That's the kind of negative publicity that Muslimsin France can live without. Maybe the French were afraid ofrepercussions."
"Frankly, it is hard to believe that the experts were notinformed that he had a record of convictions when they determined thathe was legally insane, and worse, that there is some political pressurenot to hold a trial," said Michel Lachkar, a TV journalist and the sonof Jewish immigrants from Morocco. "That is not supposed to happen inFrance. I don't know what to believe."
AND THEN Justice Minister Michele Aliot-Marie decided tooverturn the appeals court ruling. She ordered this case to be heard bya 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 theSelam family," says lawyer Metzker. "There was one chance in a thousandthat this would reach the cour de cassation, and it did. It's amiracle. And I think there will be others."
The press officer for Aliot-Marie was more precise. "Theappeals court had asked experts to decide if the security measurestaken were a match for the medical measures concerning the internmentof Amastaibou," explained Guillaume Didier. "But Justice MinisterAliot-Marie believes that according to the law, that decision shouldhave been made by a judge, not experts. And so this is going to theFrench 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 cassationhas 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 hasnothing to do with a debate on anti-Semitism or whether the killer islegally insane or not," said Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF,the central Jewish council of France. "It is simply a legaltechnicality. As far as French officials are concerned, the killer isinsane, very simply because medical experts found him to be so."
Prasquier has followed this case closely, and one aspectinfuriated him early on. Adel Amastaibou was put in a mental hospital,but until May 2007 was given permission to leave the premises onweekends. "The doctors thought it would be good for his mental healthto return home, but never once considered the health and safety of thefamily of the victim, the Selam family," he explained.
"He was back in the same building. These public healthpsychiatrists showed a total lack of sensitivity for the health andsecurity of the Selam family, and I find that shocking. Did they evenknow if he was taking his prescribed medication? The doctors put theSelam family in danger.
"This case has been disturbing for other reasons as well. Themurder involves anti-Semitism and the friction between young Jews andMaghrebi Arabs here, jealousy, the social pressure and rivalry from thehousing 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 onthe socio-psychological-educational aspects, as if they do not matter.And that is very disturbing."
Sois this a breakthrough the family and lawyer had been hoping for? Is ita mere legal technicality to keep the murderer in hospital a littlewhile longer, or could he be declared sane and fit for trial somewheredown the road?
Suddenly Stephan Selam has a grain of hope in the French legalsystem, even though the only sure thing is that his brother, SebastienSelam, a.k.a. DJ Lam.C, is dead.