France: Disproportionate emergency measures leave hundreds traumatised - new report

Heavy-handed emergency measures, including late-night house raids, travel bans and curfews, have trampled on the rights of hundreds of people in France leaving them traumatised and stigmatised, Amnesty International warned in a new report published today (4 February), ahead of a debate in the French Parliament on Friday.

The report, Upturned lives: The disproportionate impact of France's state of emergency, details how, since a state of emergency was declared shortly after the attacks in Paris on 13 November last year, more than 3,200 house searches have been conducted and more than 400 “assigned residence orders” imposed. These are France’s version of control orders and usually include a night time curfew of up to 12 hours, a ban on travelling outside a specific municipality and a requirement to report to a police station up to three times a day. Friday’s parliamentary debate is about embedding these measures into the constitution.

Amnesty began documenting the impact of the three-month state of emergency shortly after it was announced. Many of those interviewed said that they received almost no information showing how they were supposedly implicated in any security threats. Intelligence files presented in court have contained little information to substantiate claims that individuals represent a threat to public order, yet many have struggled to challenge the restrictions imposed on them.

Almost all of the 60 people Amnesty interviewed said they had been left with stress and anxiety as a result of police actions. They said that harsh measures were applied with little or no explanation and sometimes excessive force was used. One woman told Amnesty that armed police burst into her house at dawn while she was looking after her three-year-old child. Some of those targeted have lost their jobs.

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia, said:

“While governments can use exceptional measures in exceptional circumstances, they must do so with caution. The reality we have seen in France is that sweeping executive powers, with few checks on their use, have generated a range of human rights violations. It is difficult to see how the French authorities can possibly argue that they represent a proportionate response to the threats they face.

“It is all too easy to make general claims about a terrorism-related threat requiring the adoption of emergency powers. However, the French government needs to demonstrate unambiguously that a state of emergency still exists and parliamentarians should scrutinise this claim carefully. Even if satisfied on this count, meaningful safeguards need to be restored to prevent the abusive, disproportionate and discriminatory use of emergency measures.”

Cases

Many of those interviewed by Amnesty said that the current emergency measures are implemented in a discriminatory manner, specifically targeting Muslims, often on the basis of their beliefs and religious practices rather than any concrete evidence of criminal behaviour. Others told Amnesty that house searches had caused fear, stress and other health-related issues.

On 4 December, police searched the house of Issa and his wife Samira in south-eastern France. The police justified the raid on the basis that Issa was allegedly a “radical Islamist” – a claim that Issa says left him ‘flummoxed’. Although the police never pursued any criminal investigation against the couple, they copied all data on Issa’s computer, imposed a nightly curfew on him, required him to report three times a day to a police station and banned him from leaving the town he lives in. He had to turn down a job as a delivery man as a result and has spent most of his savings on legal fees.

Fahima, a mother who also lives in south-eastern France, told Amnesty that police with firearms had burst into her house in the early hours of the morning on 1 December, as she was looking after her three-year-old child. She said:

“Police knocked violently on the door. I opened it. The staircase was full of police officers, some pointed their firearms against me. I thought I was going to die. I don’t sleep well anymore and if someone speaks loudly I tremble."

On 21 November at 8:30pm, about 40 police burst into the Pepper Grill restaurant in the Parisian suburb of St-Ouen-L’Aumône, where 60 customers were eating dinner. Ivan, the restaurant’s owner, told Amnesty International:

“They told everyone to put their hands on the table, then they searched everywhere for about 35 minutes. They forced open three doors. I told them I had the keys, I could have opened the doors for them, but they ignored me.

“What really struck me is that, on the basis of the search order, they thought they could have found some people who constituted a public threat in my restaurant. However, they did not check the ID of any of the 60 clients who were there.” No further action was taken against Ivan.

Several mosques and prayer rooms have also been shut down by the French authorities since the Paris attacks. One mosque in Lagny-sur-Marne near Paris was shut down despite police reports indicating that “no element justifying the opening of an investigation has been found”.

The president of the mosque and three organisations dissolved by the authorities told Amnesty:

“If there are allegations against one or two people, why don’t they target them specifically? Why do they target a whole community? There are about 350 Muslims in Lagny who are now left with no place to worship.” 

The emergency measures in France have come at great cost to human rights, but yielded few tangible results, calling into question their proportionality. According to media reports, the 3,242 raids carried out in the past month have resulted in only four criminal investigations for terrorism-related offences and 21 investigations under the vague “apologie du terrorisme” provision. A further 488 investigations resulting from these raids were for unrelated criminal offences. 

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