A court in the northwestern French city of Rennes has cleared two police officers accused of failing to help two teens who died after being electrocuted as they hid from cops in a power substation on the outskirts of Paris in 2005.
On Monday, nearly 10 years after the incident occurred, a judge dropped the charges against officers Sébastien Gaillemin and Stéphanie Klein for failing in their responsibility to warn the teens, 15-year-old Bouna Traoré and 17-year-old Zyed Benna, about the danger and not calling for emergency services.
After years of legal battles in the French court system, an attorney for the victims' families called the court's decision "shocking." A spokesman for the SGP police union, however, described the acquittal as "a great satisfaction."
On October 27, 2005, police chased Traoré and Benna, along with 17-year-old Muhittin Altun, out of a cemetery, through woods, and into a 20,000-volt electrical transformer site operated by French electricity company EDF in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. Reportedly unsure whether the teens had actually fled inside the transformer site or not, the police left the scene. About a half-hour later, the boys were electrocuted. Traore and Benna died, but Altun survived with burns on 10 percent of his body.
The news of the two boys' death spread fast, sparking three weeks of riots in hundreds of cities across France. A decade later, both the deaths and riots have come to symbolize the deep social malaise that characterizes France's poor suburbs, while also highlighting economic and social divides within French society.
The original legal complaint was lodged by the victims' families in 2005, triggering an investigation into police responsibility on the night of the incident. An investigating judge in the Paris suburb of Bobigny sent the case before a criminal court in 2010, but the officers appealed the decision. In 2011, an appeals court in Paris sided with the two officers, and judges dropped the charges against them. But in October 2012, the Court of Cassation — France's highest court — overturned the ruling, and assigned the trial to an appeals court in Rennes.
The recent case focused on a message Gaillemin radioed in on the night of the tragedy. Speaking to the communications office over his police radio, the cop said, "I think they're entering the EDF site… We should get backup and surround the neighborhood… They'll have to come out. Having said that, if they enter the site, I wouldn't bank on them coming out alive."
Gaillemin was accused of not warning the teens about the danger they faced, and Klein — who was working in the communications room as a trainee at the time of the incident — was blamed for not alerting EDF or the emergency services.
"It's the minimum of humanity you should expect from a police officer," the families' attorney, Emmanuel Tordjman, said, adding that Gaillemin had been more focused on "his plan to arrest" the teens than with helping them.
If found guilty, Gaillemin and Klein would have faced up to five years in prison and 75,000 euros ($79,000) in fines. According to French law, everyone has a legal duty to help a person in danger as long as they or others are not put in harms way in the process.
Gaillemin told investigators in Rennes that he had checked out the transformer and was certain the teens were not inside. The public prosecutor sided with the defense team, saying the radio exchange between Gaillemin and the police base did not prove that the officers were aware of a "certain and imminent" danger to the boys.
Assistant public prosecutor Delphine Dewailly said that Gaillemin should not be criticized for his inaction, because he was unaware of the danger. Similarly, Dewailly said Klein had no reason to alert EDF, since 14 senior officials did not think it was necessary.
Far-right French National Front MP Marion Marechal Le Pen was widely criticized Monday when she reacted to the ruling by implying that the 2005 protests had been unjustified and meaningless. "The verdict proves that the scum wreaked havoc on the suburbs for pleasure, not because of a police blunder," she tweeted.
The victims' families have now launched a civil case and are seeking €1.6m ($1.8m) in compensation and damages.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray
Image via 18 mai - Zyed et Bouna website