Police on trial: Tears, anger and unhealed wounds resurface 10 years after French riots

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One October afternoon, two teenage boys were kicking around a football in their desolate housing project northeast of Paris. Two hours later, they lay lifeless, electrocuted in a power substation as they hid from police.

Two police officers wept in a hushed courtroom as they testified about what happened that fateful day in 2005 in Clichy-sous-Bois. The boys' deaths led to three weeks of nationwide riots by those who see police not as protectors but as predators, and who see 15-year-old Bouna Traore and 17-year-old Zyed Benna as victims of a system denying opportunity to minority youth across France.

Last week's long-awaited trial focused on a single event in a specific Paris suburb, but the tensions that emerged in testimony echoed similar standoffs from Ferguson, Missouri, to London and Stockholm, between largely white police forces and non-white youths.

"We are at the meeting of two worlds that don't know each other, that don't trust each other," lawyer Jean-Pierre Mignard, representing the families of the French boys killed in 2005, told The Associated Press.

The French police officers stand accused of contributing to the deaths, but insist they're not to blame. Unusually, even the prosecutor is on the officers' side, and requested acquittal for lack of evidence.

The boys' families disagree, and the trial exposed still-raw emotions over the 2005 deaths, and a still-divided France. The verdict May 18 will be closely watched, with some fearing renewed violence in impoverished housing projects if the officers are allowed to walk free. They face up to five years in prison and 75,000 euros ($79,000) each in fines.

Since the 2005 riots, successive French governments have invested millions in renovation efforts of troubled "banlieues," or suburbs. But a sense of injustice and inequality lingers among residents, many with roots in former French colonies in Africa. Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently used the term "apartheid" to describe the alienation.

Concern resurged after three radical Islamic Frenchmen from similar neighborhoods killed 17 people in January in the country's worst terrorist attacks in decades. The three were killed in shootouts with police.

Meanwhile, the far right National Front has fueled discrimination by championing anti-immigrant and anti-Islam policies. The party came in second in nationwide local elections Sunday.

The national tensions formed the backdrop to the trial last week in Rennes, in western France, where 41-year-old Sebastien Gaillemin and 38-year-old Stephanie Klein faced charges of failing to assist a person in danger.

Gaillemin was chasing the teens through the concrete jungle of Clichy-sous-Bois on Oct. 27, 2005, while Klein was coordinating police radio communications.

The case centers around a phrase from Gaillemin, when he saw the boys head toward a power substation to hide: "If they enter the site, I wouldn't pay much for their skins."

Klein, an inexperienced police intern struggling with the tense situation, is accused of having heard Gaillemin's phrase on the police radio and failing to alert anyone that the youths might be in danger.

Both insist they didn't know for sure that the teens had entered the power station, and therefore couldn't help. The officers have maintained their innocence unwaveringly for 10 years.

An autopsy report read in court described the boys' clothes melting into their flesh, and their flesh melting into their bones. The judge refused to show the images of the corpses, deeming them "too shocking."

Another boy in the power station survived, and testified at the trial. The judge asked Muhittin Altun, now 26, "Since you didn't do anything wrong, then why did you start running" from police?

"Because the others were running," Altun responded.

The testimony painted a picture of mutual suspicion that makes it difficult to find the root of the problem or assign blame. Youths run because they see police, and police pursue because they see youths running away.

A quarter of an hour after the boys' deaths were announced, the first car was torched near Clichy-sous-Bois. In the ensuing three weeks, several thousand more vehicles went up in flames, along with public buildings, in poor neighborhoods across the country. Thousands were arrested. A state of emergency was declared, and a curfew.

Clichy's mayor, Olivier Klein, testified that his town had suffered a "spiral of pauperization." It had no police station, no movie theater, he said, "no place to be convivial."

The chief judge acknowledged that the trial has political undertones, but sought to keep it focused on the case at hand. Prosecutors long sought to block a trial and it only happened after France's highest court stepped in.

When the police officers, testifying one by one, each broke down in tears, the judge seemed visibly touched by their apparent compassion.

But Altun, the one who survived the 2005 hideout in the power station, was unmoved.

"For me, those tears were for the movies," he told the AP.

"We have been crying for 10 years."


Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.