French Police Officer Convicted in Théo Luhaka Abuse Case


A police officer who brutalized a 22-year-old Black man with an expandable baton during an arrest nearly seven years ago was convicted by a French court on Friday of “intentional violence” in one of the country’s highest-profile cases of abuse by the police.

The young man, Théo Luhaka, sustained a four-inch tear to his rectum after the police subdued him during an identity check while he was cutting through a known drug-dealing zone in his housing project in a suburb northeast of Paris.

Two other officers who assisted in the arrest were also found guilty at the court in Bobigny, a suburb northeast of Paris, in a decision that lawyers on both sides welcomed but that anti-police brutality activists called far too lenient.

Mr. Luhaka did not say a word to the mob of cameras and microphones that had crowded the exit of the courtroom. But he rested his hand on the shoulder of his lawyer, Antoine Vey, who called the ruling a “victory.”

“They said once again that Théo was a victim that day and nothing justified his beating,” Mr. Vey said.

The officer who wielded the baton, Marc-Antoine Castelain, was sentenced to a one-year suspended prison sentence, meaning he will serve time only if he commits a new crime within a given time frame and a court then orders the full sentence to be served. The two other officers, Jérémie Dulin and Tony Hochart, were each sentenced to three-month suspended sentences. All but one of the sentences were less than what prosecutors had requested.

Mr. Castelain was also barred from carrying a firearm and from working on the streets as a police officer for five years, meaning he will be limited to administrative jobs. Mr. Dulin and Mr. Hochart were handed the same sentence, but for only two years.

“This is a measured verdict,” said Thibault de Montbrial, Mr. Castelain’s lawyer, adding that his client — who was not convicted on the charge that he had caused a “permanent disability” to Mr. Luhaka — saw the verdict as a “great relief.”

The three officers had all pleaded not guilty, saying that Mr. Luhaka had been violently resisting arrest; that they were acting in self-defense in hostile terrain and under stressful conditions; and that the baton that was thrust at Mr. Luhaka had been aimed at his upper thigh, a technique learned at the police academy.

Delivered after more than nine hours of deliberation by a mix of professional judges and ordinary jurors, the verdict came at a time when the issue of race in France, and the policing of Black and Arab men in the country’s impoverished suburbs, remains acutely sensitive.

“The message that was passed is that we are not human beings,” said Issa Diara, an activist, as he left the court in a crowd that was chanting for firm prison sentences against the police and holding up posters with Mr. Luhaka’s face on them. “We are considered lesser beings.”

Violent protests erupted across the country last summer after the police fatally shot Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old French citizen of North African descent, during a traffic stop. Mr. Merzouk had been driving a car without a license and had sped off after the police tried to pull him over.

But long before then, the case of Mr. Luhaka, who had no criminal record, had been held up as a potent symbol of perceived racial discrimination by the police against men in minority communities, and the obstinate refusal of the authorities to address it.

In the February 2017 incident, the three officers wrestled Mr. Luhaka to the ground, hit him repeatedly and sprayed tear gas on his face. The violent encounter left him incontinent after two operations.

He told the court the incident had robbed him of his life and that he now spends his days depressed and confined to his bedroom.

Similar to last summer’s demonstrations over Mr. Merzouk’s killing, the police attack on Mr. Luhaka ignited riotous protests for days, though they were mostly confined to the suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, where Mr. Luhaka lives.

Some initially saw Mr. Luhaka’s case as a potential turning point for France after François Hollande, then the Socialist president, visited him in the hospital and praised him for “exemplary conduct.”

Emmanuel Macron, then a presidential candidate in an election he would win months later, pledged to transform the police system into one more tailored to neighborhoods, so that officers could recognize local residents and “rebuild trust.”

Instead, seven years later, there are numerous signs that things have gotten worse, not better.

A 2017 investigation by the country’s civil liberties ombudsman found that “young men perceived to be Black or Arab” were 20 times as likely to be subjected to identity checks by the police than the rest of the population.

French courts have faulted the government twice for discriminatory police checks. Last fall, France’s highest administrative court ruled that the police often commit racial profiling in these stops, but deemed it was not within its jurisdiction to force new rules to end the practice.

French authorities have long rebutted accusations of systemic racism within the police force, calling them “totally unfounded.” One of the French state’s founding ideals is that all citizens share the same universal rights and are treated equally, regardless of religion or race.

In the country’s centralized police system, it is rare for a police officer to be criminally charged for excessive use of force, even when lethal, during an arrest — an issue that has been raised by international human rights groups for decades. In the few cases sent to criminal courts, often many years later, convictions are infrequent and sentences are considered mainly nominal.

Fabien Goa, an Amnesty International researcher based in Marseille, cited a 2005 report by his organization that described “a climate of effective impunity for law enforcement officials” in France. He said little has changed since then.

“That kind of condemnation should trigger a serious political mobilization to ensure that the rule of law is respected,” he said.

The three officers who were sentenced for the arrest of Mr. Luhaka have continued to work, but could now face internal disciplinary penalties.

The enduring sense of mistrust of and anger toward the police over violent interactions with citizens of minority backgrounds, including the attack on Mr. Luhaka, exploded back into public view last summer after the shooting of Mr. Merzouk.

Over the ensuing days, young men — some as young as 12 years old — caused havoc across the country, burning cars, setting fire to buildings, vandalizing police stations and looting businesses.

Thousands were arrested and convicted in hasty trials. French Insurance companies claimed a total of 730 million euros, or $795 million, in damage. A preliminary government report released later found that much of the looting and destruction was opportunistic.

In response to the shooting, two online fund-raisers were launched — one for the mother of the teenager, who had raised him on her own, and the other for the wife of the police officer who was charged with voluntary homicide.

The two made for an unofficial barometer of sentiment in the country. The campaign for Mr. Merzouk’s mother raised 490,000 euros, more than $530,000, but less than one-third of the 1.6 million euros raised for the police officer’s wife.



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