Philippe Sotto, ASSOCIATED PRESS
RENNES, France (AP) — A French court on Monday acquitted two police officers accused of contributing to the deaths of two minority teenagers in a blighted Paris suburb a decade ago — a long-awaited verdict that crushed the boys’ families and raised fears of possible backlash violence like that seen recently in the U.S.
The deaths of 15-year-old Bouna Traore and 17-year-old Zyed Benna prompted weeks of riots across France in 2005, exposing anger and resentment in neglected, crime-ridden suburban housing projects. Repeated government solutions since then have failed to solve deeper problems of discrimination and joblessness, and unrest still occasionally flares.
The two boys, chased by police, had entered a power substation in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois to hide and were fatally electrocuted. A third boy survived the powerful 20,000-volt electric shock with severe burns.
On Monday, the court in the western city of Rennes ruled that officers Sebastien Gaillemin and Stephanie Klein were not responsible. Neither of the officers had a “clear awareness of grave and imminent danger” as required by French law, said Judge Nicolas Leger.
Moments after the verdict was read, a young woman rose in the back of the courtroom and shouted: “The police above the law, as always.”
“You are responsible!” shouted Zyed’s brother Adel at the two police officers, just a few meters (yards) away. Bouna’s brother Gaye, told The Associated Press, “I have a sense of impunity, of injustice, and disgust.”
Activists called for protests at courthouses across the country. A representative for the boys’ families and the mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, where they died, urged the protesters to remain calm.
The mood in the streets of Clichy-sous-Bois on Monday afternoon was subdued. Residents expressed little surprise at the verdict, some sighing in resignation.
Chino, a 15-year-old leaving his Clichy school, said he feared new riots. The police “treat us like dogs,” said Chino, who gave only his first name in a neighborhood where suspicion of outsiders and authority runs high.
The two police officers were facing up to five years in prison had they been convicted of failing to assist someone in danger.
In the evening of Oct. 27, 2005, Gaillemin, now 41, was chasing the three teenagers and saw them head toward the power station, but did not help them avoid the potentially fatal danger or call emergency services. Instead, he said into his police radio: “If they enter the site, I wouldn’t pay much for their skins.”
Klein, now 38, was an inexperienced police intern coordinating police radio communications during the tense situation and heard the remark.
The victims’ families have said they could have been saved by the officers. The officers insisted they were not to blame.
During the proceedings in March, the presiding judge insisted that the national police as a whole were not on trial. Even so, lawyers for both sides have emphasized the verdict’s wider significance.
The deaths and ensuing riots cast a harsh light on the fate of housing projects populated by France’s poor, many with roots in former colonies in Africa. Over three weeks of rioting, thousands of vehicles were torched, public buildings were burned and thousands of people were arrested. A state of emergency was declared.
Terrorist attacks this January by three Frenchmen from poor, minority backgrounds revived worries about the government’s failure to fix its troubled suburbs, or “banlieues.”
The 10-year wait for a trial in the 2005 deaths made Monday’s acquittal even more painful for the boys’ families and activists who say police violence too often targets minorities and is too often ignored.
Prosecutors repeatedly declined to bring the case against the officers, but France’s highest court finally ordered a trial held in a different jurisdiction in western France. Even once it reached trial, the prosecutor in Rennes continued to argue that there wasn’t enough evidence against the police, and ultimately requested acquittal.
Jean-Pierre Mignard, a lawyer for the families, said the verdict was proof of a “legal apartheid” in France.
Another lawyer for the families, Emmanuel Tordjman, told the AP that they will appeal the decision in hopes of getting civil damages. “The families are destroyed. They have a great sense of injustice … as if Zyed and Bouna died for nothing,” he said.
Clichy-sous-Bois Mayor Olivier Klein told the AP “the trial was necessary, but 10 years is much too long.”
Within minutes of the verdict, the hashtag #ZyedEtBouna was trending on Twitter in France.
Jamey Keaten in Clichy-sous-Bois contributed to this report.
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