Trials and tribulations
What does France's decision to retry Ilan Halimi's torturers and killers mean for the French justice system and for French Jews?
Rafy Abitbol was the only member of the family to attend the verdict in the Paris court last Friday evening that brought an end to the brutal trial for the torture and murder of his brother-in-law Ilan Halimi in February 2006. He left his wife and Halimi's other sister and their mother at the dinner table and headed over to the Palais de la Justice on the Ile de la CitÃ© almost reluctantly, leaving the others to observe Shabbat, something he has never been keen on.
Wearing a blue blazer and sitting motionless and expressionless in the plaintiffs' box, Abitbol listened as Youssouf Fofana, the leader of the gang who kidnapped and tortured Halimi, 23, was handed a life sentence with a mandatory 22 years to serve, the maximum sentence applicable under French law.
Fofana clapped his hands softly upon hearing the verdict, which had been expected. The gesture was noted by the press and public on hand for the first and only day that the trial had been opened to the public.
But 25 other names and verdicts followed, ranging from 18 years to six months suspended sentences. Two people were acquitted. What must be explained is that in France, after three years already served, plus good behavior and other factors, a sentence of 18 years can mean nine years or less, and nine years can mean as little as 18 months.
This means that the superintendent of the building where Halimi was held captive and tortured will walk after perhaps five years and the girl used as bait will go free after only 18 months in prison. Eight people are being released now, including those who served their three years for not calling in a vicious kidnapping that led to a murder.
Obsessed with obtaining money by any means necessary, they might soon bump into Halimi's mother on the street as Ruth Halimi wanders through life, mourning her son.
At his reburial in Jerusalem's Har Hamenuhot cemetery in 2007, a representative of the American Jewish community, speaking at the ceremony, said that Halimi had died a martyr for the Jewish people. The American Jew did not know what he was talking about. Halimi did not die a martyr; he died for nothing - a nice, good-looking ordinary Jewish guy from a modest Sephardi family of Moroccan and Tunisian origin, who liked Israel but was really crazy about the United States. The debate in his family was not about making aliya; it was about whether to head for New York or Miami.
WHAT THE press labeled the "Gang of Barbarians," picking up on Fofana's own glib words when he was arrested after fleeing to the Ivory Coast and being brought back to France, was really a loose association of marginal characters.
They ranged from small-time criminals with prison time under their belts to local tough guys and girls, many of black African and North African Arab backgrounds, but also Gallic French. Their spotty educations fit their general level of intelligence. Like many in France, they thought all Jews were rich, and like marginalized people everywhere, they hated the police. This was also not their first kidnapping.
As they hung out in the hallway and mostly abandoned basement of the building on Rue Prokofiev in Bagneux, a fairly nice working-class suburb just south of Paris, like the disenfranchised all over the world, they dreamed of how to get their hands on other people's money.
Fofana, a charismatic man who prayed in the local mosque regularly, and who had been doing shady deals with the building superintendent, Gilles Serrurier, 42, had the answer: kidnap a Jew and hold him for ransom. Using pretty, buxom, dark-haired 17-year-old Yalda, of Iranian origin, to visit Halimi's store as bait with the promise of sexual adventures, they got Halimi to Bagneux on January 21, 2006.
The rest is history: a brutal 24 days of cutting, burning and beating Halimi, who was tied up in the basement room that the superintendent had turned over to the gang after he was promised money. How much? Fofana offered him 1,500 euros, about $2,300. After the ransom deal went bad, Fofana and three or four other guys went especially berserk on Halimi, for one reason only - because he was Jewish. No one ever saw a penny.
The police, who had botched the case badly by telling the family to cut off contact with Fofana, found Halimi brutally beaten, bloody, with his head shaven, naked and staggering in a suburban railway station. He died on the way to the hospital, unable to utter a word.
The story, when it finally reached the French press, shocked the nation, but most Gallic French did not care for the accusations of anti-Semitism from the Jewish community. "This is not the extreme Right, nor the extreme Left, so how can it be anti-Semitic?" said one TV journalist, in an example of classic French inductive logic. "It's just a sick, violent story."
IN THE Muslim Arab and black communities, reactions came according to the intelligence level of the individual. Educated Arabs with good jobs recognized
anti-Semitism immediately, expressed their sorrow for Halimi's mother and were angry that Fofana would dare to claim the attack had anything to do with Islam. Others, often residents of the suburban housing projects, abandoned by the French education system, said that the attack was vengeance for the suffering of the Palestinians. Fofana himself said something similar.
A demonstration organized in March 2006 attracted tens of thousands of people, 90 percent of whom were Jews, and a few hundred who were educated Muslims. The Gallic French were disgusted by the violent crime, but the buck stopped there.
Because several of the defendants were minors, the trial was held behind closed doors. The Jewish community was furious, sensing that the truth would never be heard, and that a learning opportunity was being missed.
When the verdicts were read, Abitbol shrugged his shoulders. "The truth will never be known, but what can I say," he said. "I'm not a judge and I don't want vengeance. I feel empty. I'm thinking about Ilan. This won't change a thing."
But now, everything has changed. What Jewish community officials had been hoping for happened. Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie has asked the high court in Paris to hold a new trial for 14 of the 25 defendants, because of the light sentences handed down last Friday.
Abitbol is happy with the decision. So is Ruth. "It feels strange that we will go through this all over again," said Abitbol, "but the important thing for me is not handing out heavier jail terms, honestly. The important thing is to open this to the press and public and make it a learning experience. And even if people watch this trial like a reality show or a horror film, I don't care. They will see the horror of what the defendants really did to Ilan and how they made another human being suffer for 24 days, just because he was Jewishâ€¦ in France, in the 21st century. And it doesn't have to happen again."
RICHARD PRASQUIER, president of CRIF, the French Jewish council, was happy at the news, but cautioned that "because the girl was a minor, the defense can ask for another closed-door trial, unless the law is changed." He said a draft law has already been proposed. "Perhaps in a year's time there will be a new trial, and perhaps it will be public."
Community activist Gil Taieb, vice president of the Jewish Social Fund, had organized a demonstration to encourage Alliot-Marie to call for a new trial, and in the end, she beat him to it, making her decision earlier Monday. "Yes, we are worried that people think the minister gave in to pressure from the community, but this is not the case," said Taieb, who has been giving constant interviews on French radio on the legal flip-flop. "Her cabinet director told us she felt that there was something wrong that the sentences handed down by the jury were less than those demanded by the state prosecutor. That is why she called for a new trial."
But could this fall on young people in the Jewish community? "If there is a backlash, it would be part of the ongoing anti-Semitism in sectors of French society, and that is why this new trial must be public, to give it some kind of educational value," Taieb said. He added that what made him most angry was a short phrase from the prosecutor during the trial, who accused the defendants of transforming "normal anti-Semitism into hateful anti-Semitism."
"What is that, is that normal? Whenever anti-Semitism can surface in France, it surfaces."
Abitbol had always thought that holding the trial in public would have changed something, would have made more French people interested in it. He looked around at the army of journalists in the courtroom and at the TV cameras lighting up the hall downstairs as lawyers gave statements, but the next day noted that the stories were short and focused on Fofana, with little on the short sentences for the accomplices. It was the facts, nothing but the facts.
"The jury reduced the sentences demanded by the prosecutor because I think they felt sorry for the defendants," said Prasquier. "They are young, not very intelligent and have faced tough circumstances in their lives. And I think the role of anti-Semitism in this was downplayed by the prosecutor. In a sense, these young people have become the victims of the French systems, the great losers. Their passive complicity was considered normal."
What that means is that while four or five guys did the actual beating and burning, everyone else played a role and knew what was going on, and said nothing, and the jurors decided that was less bad. Maybe they were afraid to talk, to call the police, afraid of repercussions in the projects or on the street, where nobody likes the police, anyway.
And the closed-door trial?
"The courts could have made this a learning experience for the French public," said Prasquier, "to learn about how evil anti-Semitism can get in modern France, to learn what it means for French values and what is going on in some of the suburbs."
Taieb was not so diplomatic. "This is an embarrassment for the French court system and for France, because it shows that collaboration is possible," he said. "These guys can participate in a brutal crime and get away with murder."
PRASQUIER AND Taieb were present in court on Friday night, but most of the Jewish community was not, including the French Jewish radio stations and print outlets, which were totally absent. The obvious excuse would be Shabbat, but not everyone is observant. So how is it that the editors, who had made a
big deal of the case before the verdict and are still doing so with daily interviews, were not present for the action, in front of the box full of defendants guilty of the most horrific act of anti-Semitism in France since World War II?
"Frankly, I don't understand where all the Jewish press was," said Taieb. "I know all the editors; they should have been there. This is not good. And the fact that the verdict fell on a Friday evening, on Shabbat... well, did the court plan this, so the family wouldn't show [up], or the press? It is hard to imagine this in France, but in Judaism we say there are no coincidences. I was very disappointed to see the hall and courtroom packed with the French press, and no French Jewish press."
"This was supposed to be such an educational moment, a verdict open to the press and the public after a closed-door trial, [so] I was very surprised not to see the Jewish press, and then I was happy to see someone from the Israeli press," said Geraldine Nacache, a lawyer for one of the plaintiffs other than the Halimi family. "But aside from that, the closed-door trial has damaged the information flow. From the very beginning of the kidnapping in 2006, the French public has had the impression that this is only a Jewish affair, but I have been telling people that the very values of the republic of France are at stake here."
In fact, Nacache has some extraordinary stories to tell. In the weeks leading up to the Halimi affair, Fofana and his crew launched eight kidnapping attempts in the Paris region, all against Jewish targets, and they all failed. Her client was one. The police did not put two and two together in time, but in all fairness, most of the victims did not go to the police until after the Halimi case broke.
"In court, Fofana yelled loud and clear, 'I killed him because he was Jewish,'" said Nacache, "but the closed-door trial kept the press away so nobody knew these details. He had a charismatic effect on the others, who you could see in court were not too bright. They thought this was going to work. You saw the building super's face in the box in court, right?"
The press has not bothered going over the details. Radio, TV and print accounts gave factual accounts of the verdicts, quoted the prosecutor saying the sentences were correct and interviewed the defense attorneys and then Francis Szpiner, the Halimis' lawyer.
SINCE THEN, the story has once again exploded, following the Justice Ministry's decision to hold another trial. The decision almost appears to have come on cue. Defense lawyers say the trial was fair, prosecutors say the light sentences brought dishonor to the country, and on Monday the retrial was announced.
However, on the streets in Bagneux, it was just another day.
Jean-Marc Brison has the tattoos of a man who has gone in and out of prison for most of his life, the glint in his eyes of someone using stimulants but the enthusiasm of a man who has survived it all and wakes up happy.
"At the time, the young people on the street here knew something was up but nobody was talking because here, first of all, nobody talks to the police," he said, walking past the building where Halimi was tortured on his way to work in the Bagneux cemetery, which has a large Jewish section.
"But now, everyone has forgotten; they have filed this away in their memory somewhere. At the time, everyone was afraid. They [all] knew someone whose kids were involved or something, so they weren't talking, not to the police who were asking for our ID papers all the time for no reason, nor to the press, who were bugging everyone.
"Me? I'm 47 years old, not 21, and I work every day. What did I know? I don't hang out with losers like that. But I don't understand how a guy like Samir could be so anti-Semitic."
Samir Ait Abdel Malik was a top lieutenant in the Fofana gang, personally involved in beating and torturing Halimi. He received a 15-year sentence, reduced from the 18 years requested by the prosecutor. According to legal experts, he would have walked after nine years or so in prison, but now faces a new trial.
"Where did this hatred and intolerance come from?" Brison continued, his flow of words continuing on what appears to be a recently induced chemical buzz. "Not from his personal life, I'm sure. I know him and his parents well. They are Kabyles from Algeria. His parents are not anti-Semitic in the slightest, and not religious extremists either... And honestly, my heart goes out to that boy Ilan and his mother."
Brison mixed his analysis with a personal history lesson. "I think that Fofana twisted their heads around," he said. "They must have been so stoned, smoking hash every day. I bet it was easy. And frankly, when you look at what the Jews have done for France compared to what the Arabs have done, how dare they say anything anti-Semitic. And look at Israel. It's a real country, with real structures and a tough army. I really admire them, I do. But don't think the French care about this case, because they do not."
INSIDE NO. 4, Josette Bussinger and AndrÃ©e Ques are not happy at all. The day after the verdict, they held an informal meeting with 10 or so residents and decided that they would have liked to see their former superintendent, Gilles Serrurier, get the same sentence as Fofana.
"We always disliked the man," said Ques, a retired post office employee. "He was a lazy bum who awoke every morning and wondered, what dirty business can I do today to make some money without working. Things disappeared from the storage room that he had a key to... We wrote letters to the building company and met with them to try to get him fired, but they ignored us. Imagine if they had paid attention and he had not been able to give those young hoodlums the basement and ninth-floor apartment. Maybe Ilan would be alive today."
Bussinger and Ques kick themselves today for not realizing that something truly horrific was going on under their noses, but when they say they did not know, it is easy to see how. The basement is largely abandoned and is soundproof.
"We watched [Serrurier] going down there all the time with the gang of losers to hang out. And we thought they were selling off stolen merchandise or doing their weasel deals to make money, which in a sense, comes with the job for many building supers," Ques continued, "but we never imagined that they were torturing a young Jewish man to death. It sounds like a horror movie, not real life."
Talking a blue streak, Ques said residents called the police regularly to complain about the group hanging out in the hallway. "The police never took us seriously, but it is true that we were never threatened openly, never touched physically," she said. "Those losers were a pain in the neck, but we were not in danger and the police knew it, so they would come two hours later, and by that time, they were gone.
"Since the verdict, no French journalists have come back here. They are not interested. Can you tell Ilan's mother something from us, from me and Josette and her husband?" Bussinger, in her 70s, nods in agreement. "My husband and I hated that super. My husband really tried to get him fired, but the building people ignored us, like the police ignored us, like everyone ignores everyone in this country," she said. "Bagneux had a good leftist city council with a solid public school system, but teachers began to be insulted and harassed by certain families, and they left. Now, everyone goes to private schools if they can, and the others, the poorer immigrant families, even if the kids are born in France, they do not get the tools they need to feel French. These kids are the perfect example. The so-called values of the republic simply don't apply to them. The town has fallen apart. It is very sad."
Ques was insistent. "Please tell that poor mother that our hearts go out to her, that we feel her pain," she said. "It took us several years to get over this, and we know she will never get over the loss of her dear son. Please tell her we never could have imagined in 100 years that this bunch of losers hanging out in our hallway drinking beers, eating pizzas and smoking hash had kidnapped her son for ransom and was torturing him to death in our basement only because he was Jewish. Please tell her, please."
"CERTAIN GALLIC French and Arabs felt strongly about this affair from the very beginning when Ilan was killed and have expressed their anger, but I believe you really have two different visions and ideals of France being formed around the trial, for the little people know about it," said Michael Sebban, an author and former public high school philosophy teacher in Saint Denis, a tough suburb north of Paris. Sebban, an Orthodox Jew, now divides his time between Paris-Bordeaux and Jerusalem.
"For most French, this is a reality show killing, and for the Jews, it is a tragedy," he said. "The French do not feel concerned on a personal level, while Jews feel like it was the boy next door. As if they were not living in the same country."
"If nothing else, this awful tragedy proves how easy it is to manipulate stupid people," commented Faiza Soummar, an executive present in the courtroom as a member of the public. "These people had fixed ideas about Jews, that they are all rich and powerful, and Fofana turned that into vicious action. But I am not surprised at the lenient sentences. It is typical of French courts. People are not responsible for their actions in this country. The jurors in this case proved it, once again."
IN THE hall of the courtroom, Myriam and a small group of friends appeared to be some of the very few Jews among the public, and they were looking around as if they were about to be attacked.
"I really feel uneasy here," she said, unwilling to give her last name. "They have killed so many Jews, they have killed..." Her jaw drops, and her friends offer only blank stares. One of them goes off and insults the defense lawyer, who was busy making statements in front of all the TV cameras. Instead of ignoring him, the lawyer, well-spoken and sure of himself, exploded in anger.
"Who the hell are you, what are you doing here?" he yelled right in the face of the short, swarthy young man, who was not expecting such a strong response, and who backed off, stammering. The cameramen loved it and moved in, filming every moment. "I am defending my clients and the French legal system, and you are calling me a jerk and an anti-Semite? You are an idiot. Get out of here," the lawyer yelled.
The threat of violence was there, but the altercation had no value, except for the cameras, and the lawyer knew it. That night and the next day, the hallway clash between the lawyer and the not-too-bright, frustrated young Jewish guy was prominently featured on every TV report in France. It looked good.
The light sentences for the accomplices have been reported only in the written press, and only because the Jewish community has made statements saying that justice was not done. In other words, this was a Jewish affair, and only a Jewish affair.
The left-leaning daily Liberation buried a small story on page 13 with a headline, "Jewish organizations call for a new trial." "Only the maximum sentence for Fofana satisfies them..." the story reads. The implication was clear. While the rest of France wanted to put this story to rest, the Jews wanted their pound of flesh. This is France, and the French are polite. Nobody would ever say that face-to-face. But that is how it read between the lines.
"I was watching the news all weekend and saw the verdict for Fofana and the hallway clash with the lawyer, but I saw nothing on his accomplices," said Florencia SimporÃ©, a young TV journalist in training who is second-generation French from Burkina Faso. "It's obvious to me that the journalists were not the slightest bit interested in the others, only in Fofana. And my friends from the Ivory Coast were only worried that he was bad for their image. They know nothing about the murder case, about the Jewish guy who was killed."
Solene Saleur, a TV production assistant, remembered only the clash between the lawyer and the young man in the court hall. "All the television [stations] focused on that and Fofana, nothing else," she said. "I know nothing about the rest." Her face curves into a smile and she shrugs her shoulders.
DID THE closed-door trial really make a difference? Sarah Ait Mehdi, a teacher in tough suburbs, commented, "The Arab and African kids in the projects would have watched the trial on the news, if they watched at all, like a reality show, or a horror film, and I wonder if the Gallic French would not have ignored the whole thing. Would they have said, this does not concern us? I wonder."
In the front row, a tough young lady was happy. She was a friend of the girl used to trap Halimi. They had met in prison. "I felt so badly for Ilan and his mother, meskine," she said, using the Maghrebi Arabic word. "But I'm happy for my friend. [Yalda] didn't do anything. She just trapped him. She just wanted money. She didn't know they would kill him. Walla. The poor guy. But I'm happy. This is France. She'll be getting out soon, and we'll hang out together."
That is what she said back on Friday, but today she is probably raging. In fact, whereas Ilan Halimi was never a symbol of anything, never more than a nice Jewish boy in Paris, the defendants who are going to be retried may very well become the symbol of mostly black and Arab victims and what they perceive as the "Jewish influence" on the French system.
While a new trial may be good for justice for the Halimi family and good for the justice system in France, it might not be good for France's Jews, especially the young people living in touch-and-go areas. Have community leaders really thought of that?