France: New report reveals racist abuse with impunity by French police

Racism is a major element in many of the cases and all involve persons of foreign, predominantly Arab and African, origin. Complaints about police conduct in France increased by nearly 20 per cent in 2004.

The report – France: The Search for Justice – exposes a pattern of effective impunity for French police, with French government ministers, judges and senior police officers allowing officers to use excessive and sometimes lethal force against suspects without fear of serious repercussions.

Over a period of ten years, Amnesty International has uncovered evidence of widespread failures of the judicial system to prosecute and punish human rights violations.

This includes a 'two-speed justice' system which prosecutes cases brought by police officers far more quickly than those brought by their victims.

The cases of Youssef Khaïf (police killing) and Aïssa Ihich (death in custody), for example, both took 10 years to come to court.

Amnesty International has found that a large number of cases never reach the courtroom. When they do, convictions are rare, and sentences often nominal.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

"People have been racially abused, beaten and even killed by the police in France.

"Yet the French judicial system is failing to investigate and punish human rights abuses by police officers."

The organisation is calling for the French authorities to:

  • create an independent mechanism to investigate all allegations of serious human rights violations
  • bring those responsible to justice after prompt and thorough investigations
  • ensure that all detainees are granted access to a lawyer from the outset of police custody
  • and ensure that the victims receive redress

Kate Allen said:

"People must have confidence that their police force will be held accountable if officers abuse or mistreat people.

"There is a clear need for an independent mechanism to investigate allegations of abuses by the French police. The existing system simply isn't working.

"The prevention of torture and ill-treatment is primarily a matter of political will. There must be full accountability for everyone involved no matter what their rank."

Amnesty International is also concerned at the continuing lack of respect for the French police's own internal guidelines.

Public prosecutors are reluctant to pursue cases against police officers; there is mistreatment and lack of safeguards in police custody and unnecessarily lengthy delays in judicial proceedings; and the French Penal Code contains no full definition of 'torture'.

Karim Latifi

On 22 February 2002 a French IT consultant, Karim Latifi, was reportedly involved in an altercation with police officers in Paris, in which he was severely assaulted and racially abused by police officers.

According to the complaint he lodged with the Inspection Générale des Services [IGS], Karim Latifi had got out of his car after finding the road blocked by police vehicles.

He approached some officers who were questioning a group of youths, two of whom he recognized, and asked what was happening. He was asked for identification.

Karim Latifi claimed that one officer then pushed him onto a flight of steps. Describing what happened, he said:

"I’m feeling off-balance; he (the police officer) gets out his baton and hits me on the head, then pounces on me, strike my face, this time with his leg. I'm terrified, I can feel the ground vibrating my head and my shoulder. I shout for help. I drag myself away.

"A dozen policemen throw themselves at me. It's a deluge of blows, kicks, insults 'dirty Arab', 'son of a bitch'."

His head began to swell and his nose was broken. He claimed that he was forced to lick the wall.

During the car journey to the police station he was allegedly subjected to continued racial abuse.

He was held in the police station for 15 minutes, after which he was told no charges were being brought against him and he was released.

Amnesty International brought the case to the attention of the Interior Minister and asked for prompt, thorough and impartial police and judicial investigations.

The Minister replied, in October 2002, that the case had been closed by the public prosecutor on 10 July 2002.

In a letter to Amnesty International dated 24 July 2003, the Paris prosecutor stated that the case had been investigated by the IGS, as a result of which his predecessor had closed the case.

He stated that through the IGS he had reprimanded three police officers for [unspecified] infringements of legal regulations in the course of the inquiry.

Omar Baha

On 23 December 2002 Omar Baha, a 34-year-old French actor of Algerian origin, witnessed the ill-treatment of Sebastien de Freitas at the hands of a group of police officers who had used tear gas to disperse a large crowd outside a Metro station in Paris.

Sebastian de Freitas was reportedly Christmas shopping with relatives, including his four-year-old brother.

Angry at the effect of the gas on the little boy, Sebastian de Freitas had reportedly insulted the officers, who demanded to see his identity papers, threw him to the ground and beat him.

Omar Baha approached the officers and declared his intention to denounce their actions to the Minister of the Interior.

As Omar Baha then turned to go into the Metro station he was reportedly approached by the officer using the tear gas and struck hard on the face with the end of the gas canister.

He was then further beaten by a number of officers. This account was reportedly supported by various eye-witnesses.

The crowd reportedly shouted to the police to stop. Omar Baha was taken to the police station where he was charged with insulting officers, resisting arrest and incitement to riot, an invented charge.

A duty doctor found that his nose was fractured but he was not allowed to receive the hospital treatment advised by the doctor while being held in police custody.

Omar Baha remained in police custody until 25 December when he was provisionally released until a court hearing on 7 February at the Correctional Court of Paris.

He submitted a complaint about ill-treatment which the prosecutor asked the IGS to examine.

On 17 January 2003 the Minister of the Interior announced that two judicial inquiries had been opened, one into the charges against Omar Baha, the other into Omar Baha's complaint.

Two officers suspected of involvement in the ill-treatment of Omar Baha were provisionally suspended from duty.

At the hearing on 7 February 2003, attended by Amnesty International representatives, the court dismissed all charges against Omar Baha.

The court found that the charge brought by the police officers as grounds for extending police custody, "incitement to riot" did not exist in the French Penal Code.

Although the court threw out the charges brought by the police officers against Omar Baha in 2003, the hearing of the charge brought by Omar Baha against the police officers has not still taken place.

Amnesty International is particularly concerned at the two-speed justice which this case illustrates.

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