A French court has acquitted two police officers who were accused of contributing to the deaths of two teenagers in a blighted Paris suburb a decade ago.
The long-awaited and closely watched verdict may revive memories of 2005 nationwide riots and stir up a new wave of mistrust, anger and violent protests, similar to those seen recently in the U.S.
The court in the western city of Rennes ruled that police officers Sebastien Gaillemin and Stephanie Klein were not responsible when two Muslim teenage boys chased by police entered a power substation to hide and were fatally electrocuted in October 2005.
Thousands of vehicles were torched, public buildings were burned and thousands of people were arrested in the three weeks of riots after the deaths of Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna.
The two police officers were facing up to five years in prison had they been convicted of failing to assist someone in danger.
The evening of Oct. 27, 2005, Gaillemin 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, an inexperienced police intern, was coordinating police radio communications during the tense situation and heard the remark.
Daniel Merchat, a lawyer for the officers, underlined “how important the upcoming verdict will be for all French police officers” in a phone interview before the verdict on Saturday. And Emmanuel Tordjman, a lawyer for the victims’ families, said the trial was also about the suburban residents who “are entitled to the same justice as other people.”
The victims’ families say the lives of Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, could have been saved by the officers, who the court heard knew the boys were in potential danger. The officers insist they are not to blame.
Tordjman said before the announcement that a not-guilty verdict would be a “huge disappointment” for the families of the victims. Parents, other family members and the young survivor, Muhittin Altun, now 27, have been waiting for the verdict for 10 years and had high expectations that justice would be done, he said.
Several associations and groups called for gatherings to hear the verdict Monday in France’s “banlieues,” or suburbs.
The lengthy judicial procedure in the case has left many in the French suburbs with frustration, a feeling of a two-speed justice system and, for some, a latent anger waiting to flare up again. And some fear the not-guilty verdict might be the spark for it.
Samir Mihi, the president of local association ADM, says he doesn’t “want people in our neighborhoods to be taken hostage again” as he says they were in the 2005 riots. “I wish people would talk about the deaths of Zyed and Bouna, not about burning cars.”