PARIS – Outrage is growing in France over the decision to bring voluntary homicide charges against a jeweler who shot and killed an escaping robber, but the country's top security official on Tuesday urged fearful storekeepers to let justice take its course.
The 67-year-old jeweler, Stephan Turk, was confined at home with an electronic bracelet after the shooting last week that left a teenage robber dead in the street outside Turk's jewelry story in the French Riviera city of Nice. An accomplice escaped on a motorbike as the body lay in the street.
In a country where gun violence is rare but armed robbery is increasingly common, the shooting -- and the formal charges of voluntary homicide -- have placed the government in a difficult position.
"Even when faced with the unbearable, we have to let justice prevail," Interior Minister Manuel Valls said Tuesday in Nice, where he was sent by the president a day after a protest by hundreds of Turk's supporters.
Jewelers in southern France say they're being targeted as never before and lack the resources to protect themselves.
"It was a difficult situation. I don't know how I would have reacted myself. I don't endorse what he did, but he had been beaten and threatened with death," Yan Turk, the son of the jeweler, told the Nice Matin paper. "We've had it with being targeted by robbers."
The young man killed, 19-year-old Anthony Asli, had been in trouble as a juvenile and was freed about a month ago from his most recent stint in detention, shedding his own electronic bracelet and moving in with a longtime girlfriend who is pregnant with their child. Asli's family described him as impressionable and immature.
"The family's not condoning the robbery. They're not condoning it and they're not excusing it. It was Anthony's fault. But did he deserve to die in these conditions?" their lawyer, Olivier Castellacci, said Tuesday. "We don't have, in France, the notion of taking justice into your own hands. The family is revolted by that."
But France has seen a spate of high-profile jewelry thefts lately, and Castellacci said the mobilization in support of the jeweler is a reflection of unease with increasing violence.
The robbery was carried out with a shotgun, he said. It wasn't clear whether Asli and the accomplice both had firearms.
A single gunman in the southern city of Cannes made off with a $136 million cache this summer. That was followed by another armed robbery days later in the same city. In Paris' wealthy Place Vendome on Sept. 9, thieves drove a sport utility vehicle into a jewelry store, grabbed 2 million euros ($2.7 million) worth of loot, then set the vehicle on fire and escaped.
"The number of jewelry store robberies has been climbing for years. There's one robbery a day in France," Christine Boquet, president of the union of jewelers and watchmakers, told the Nice Matin. "This creates enormous stress for the merchants. They live with this fear and insecurity every day."
Yet the sister of the 19-year-old who was killed says Turk shot him in the back and deserves prison.
"He shot a kid in the back. He's a traitor, he's a coward," said Alexandra Asli, his older sister.
Asli, who was shot dead in the street outside the jewelry store, had been convicted 14 times in juvenile court, according to Eric Bedos, the Nice prosecutor.
Bedos defended his decision to bring preliminary charges Friday against Turk, whose gun he said was not legal. The voluntary homicide charge is similar to a second-degree murder charge or voluntary manslaughter.
"After he was threatened, the jeweler grabbed his firearm, moved toward the metal shutters, crouched and fired three times. He said he fired twice to immobilize the scooter and a third time he fired because he said he felt threatened," Bedos told the media.
"I'm convinced that he fired to kill his aggressor. When he fired, his life was no longer in danger," the prosecutor said.
Valls acknowledged the frustration of jewelers, saying armed robberies of their businesses had been climbing steadily for years.
"We understand the exasperation and anger of the merchants," he said. "Those who rob must know that there is no impunity and they will be pursued relentlessly."
Castellacci said the Asli family would be satisfied if the jeweler were jailed ahead of trial, justice was done, and people stopped gloating over the 19-year-old's death.
"They don't understand how people can react this way. They haven't yet buried Anthony, and there's this protest. And the jeweler is still free."