Verdict due on French police accused in 2 teens' deaths; fears acquittal may spark violence

A verdict is expected Monday in the trial of two French police officers accused of contributing to the deaths of two teenagers in a blighted Paris suburb 10 years ago, amid fears that an acquittal might spark violent protests like those seen recently in the U.S.

The court in the western city of Rennes will rule whether police officers Sebastien Gaillemin, 41, and Stephanie Klein, 38, failed to assist people in danger when two Muslim teenage boys chased by police hid in a power substation and were fatally electrocuted in October 2005. A third boy survived the powerful 20,000-volt electric shock with severe burns and lasting trauma.

The deaths sparked urban riots across France, casting a harsh light on the fate of the French suburbs. Over three weeks of rioting, thousands of vehicles were torched, public buildings were burned and thousands of people were arrested. A state of emergency was declared and a curfew was imposed.

The two police officers face up to five years in prison and 75,000 euros ($79,000) each in fines.

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.

Early in the trial in March, the presiding judge insisted that the national police as a whole are not on trial. Even so, lawyers for both sides have emphasized the verdict's wider significance, and it is being closely watched for signs it could stir up new tensions and mistrust between the police and France's minority youth.

Daniel Merchat, a lawyer for the officers, underlined "how important the upcoming verdict will be for all French police officers" in a phone interview 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. The public prosecutor has asked the court to find the defendants not guilty.

A not-guilty verdict would be a "huge disappointment" for the families of the victims, Tordjman said in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Saturday. After 10 years of waiting, parents, other family members and the young survivor, Muhittin Altun, now 27, have high expectations but feel confident justice will be done, he said.

"The victims' families have no feelings of hatred or revenge against the police. They only want answers to their questions", Tordjman said. In the event that the two police officers are cleared, "the families' anger will be inner, not revengeful."

But it is not clear the families' peaceful feelings are shared by everyone in the "banlieues", or suburbs, where several associations and groups have called for gatherings on Monday when the verdict is announced.

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 a not-guilty verdict might be the spark for it.

After the verdict is returned, 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."