x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

'Ilan's only fault was to be Jewish'

As a court in Paris passes judgment on 27 people accused of murder three years ago, questions remain over who is really to blame.

The gang's leader, Youssouf Fofana, escorted by Cote d'Ivoire gendarme officers, has been brazen in court.
The gang's leader, Youssouf Fofana, escorted by Cote d'Ivoire gendarme officers, has been brazen in court.

PARIS // As Youssouf Fofana faces life imprisonment as the leader of the "gang of Barbarians" responsible for the kidnap, torture and murder of a young Parisian Jew, the end of his 10-week trial leaves France no closer to understanding what turned a petty criminal from the banlieues into a remorseless killer. The juvenile chambers of the Palais de Justice on the banks of the Seine in Paris, chosen as the venue for the trial because some of the 27 accused were minors at the time of the murder, can have heard few cases as distressing and disturbing. The court was due to deliver its verdict late yesterday.

Within France's large Muslim population, there has been revulsion at Fofana's claims to have committed his crimes in the name of Islam. Even fellow gang members turned against him. But the apologies, sincere or tactical, of several co-defendants have been obscured by the posture of defiant belligerence maintained to the end by the swaggering gang leader. Born in Paris to poor but apparently decent parents from the Cote d'Ivoire, the 28-year-old Fofana has remained the central figure of the case despite his refusal to attend proceedings since a one-day expulsion from court ordered on June 11 after he threw shoes at legal representatives of the family of his victim, Ilan Halimi.

Even before the trial closed its doors to the press and public soon after opening on April 28 - another consequence of the youthfulness of some of those on trial - Fofana had caused indignation by giving the place and date of his birth as Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois on February 13 2006. It was in that southern Parisian suburb, on that date, that Halimi died after being found beside a railway track bound, naked and his body mutilated.

And when public hearings recommenced in the closing days of the trial, and Fofana was required to return to the chamber, he displayed the same brazen, contemptuous demeanour of his earlier appearances. Insisting that he had no regrets for his actions, he adopted - whether or not intentionally - words most commonly attributed to one of Israel's founders, David Ben-Gurion: "Better to live one day as a lion than a thousand as a lamb."

Halimi was a 23-year-old assistant in a mobile phone shop in central Paris when "Yalda", just 17 and from Iranian family background, was instructed by Fofana to lure him into captivity, one of a series of honey traps devised by him in the hope of extracting generous ransom payments from anxious families. Yalda, evidently flattered by Fofana's attentions ("he was looking for someone stupid and thought of me," she allegedly told a friend), arranged to meet the impressionable young Jew for a drink.

In the basement of a building in a Paris suburb, Halimi was attacked and overcome with ether before being taken to a vacant apartment in the southern Parisian suburb of Bagneux. There he was subjected to a three-week ordeal during which he was repeatedly stabbed and burnt with cigarette ends. In a succession of ransom demands, Fofana demanded ?450,000 (Dh2.3 million) in exchange for Halimi's release. Photographs, and videotaped messages of Halimi blindfolded, weakened and pleading for his life were released by his captors.

Prosecutors have said some of those who acted as drivers, jailers or helpers in Fofana's gang began to have second thoughts as attempts to obtain a ransom led nowhere. On February 13, Fofana told them he planned to release their prisoner. Halimi was bundled into the boot of a stolen car but, before being dumped, had been doused with spirits and set alight, leaving burns to 80 per cent of his body. He died on the way to hospital.

Four other young men unsuccessfully targeted by Fofana's gang before Halimi's abduction were also Jewish. Like them, Halimi was chosen because "he was Jewish and Jews have money," one gang member said. But even those close to the case remain divided over whether even Fofana was at first driven by anti-Semitism or the hope of quick financial gain, however mixed his motives - or subsequent rationale - may have become.

Since the first arrests, gang members have taken care to distance themselves from Fofana's brutality and his anti-Jewish comments. The kidnapping "bait", Yalda, herself the product of a deeply disturbed childhood and allegedly gang-raped at 13, has tried three times in custody to commit suicide. Halimi's family have no sympathy for her, saying he would be alive today had she refused to take part in the plot or later alerted police. And to the victim's relatives, the anti-Semitic aspect of the murder is clear enough.

"We haven't seen acts of this kind since the Holocaust," his mother, Ruth, told the court. "Ilan's only fault was to be Jewish." Amid the far-fetched claims that he somehow represents Palestinian victims of injustice at the hands of Israel, it is easy to forget that after fleeing to Abidjan, capital of his parents' native country, Fofana initially insisted that he was innocent, harboured no hostility towards Jews and had confessed to Ivorian police only under duress.

The search for some sort of political or religious vindication came later, as he awaited trial. His explanations have at best been confused. He claimed at times to have had financial motives when recruiting young women to lure potential kidnap victims into his clutches. Gradually, he cited Halimi's Jewishness; in one statement, he used the phrase "death to Israel". Before the trial began, about 30 defence lawyers came and went, most dismissed by Fofana himself.

In interviews, mostly anonymous, some of them conducted by the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, he was variously described as a braggart, a disturbed misfit and a gloryseeker who wished to be remembered for his exploits to the point of being the subject of a book or film. One of the lawyers said he was sure Fofana had no intention at the outset that his criminal escapade should lead to someone's death.

In a depressing appraisal of the outlook of some of those growing up surrounded by poverty and discrimination in the suburbs of France's big cities, another lawyer - himself of African origin - had no difficulty in reconciling Fofana's conflicting assertions. "For me, contrary to his claims, he is a product of neither African nor Muslim culture," he said, "but of French society with the culture of the youth of the banlieues."

crandall@thenational.ae