Thursday, 23 July 2009

Gang of Barbarians retrial: did the Jews want their pound of flesh?

"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."

Source: article by Brett Kline in JPost

"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 Cité 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." [...]

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 [Gil Taieb, vice president of the Jewish Social Fund] 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." [...]

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. [...]

"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." [...]

Ih 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. [...]

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?"

- Ilan Halimi's murderer sentenced to life in prison
- Trial of Ilan Halimi’s barbarian murderers opens in Paris
- The murder of Ilan Halimi in Paris three years ago
- Echoes in the beating of Rudy Haddad

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