France was forced to confront the moral decay of its deprived housing estates as the trial opened today one of the decade’s most harrowing murder cases: the kidnap and torturing to death of a Jewish mobile phone salesman by a gang said to believe Jews were “loaded” and would club together to pay a ransom.
Ilan Halimi, 23, was found naked with his head shaved, in handcuffs and covered with burn marks and stab wounds near rail tracks outside Paris in February 2006. In a state of shock and unable to speak, he died en route to hospital. He had been held, tortured and beaten for three weeks, his head wrapped in tape, eyes Sellotaped shut and fed through a straw, while a gang known as the Barbarians demanded a ransom from his family.
Police initially did not treat the case as a hate crime. But within days of Halimi’s death his family said he was targeted because he was Jewish. France, still coming to terms with its anti-semitic collaboration of the second world war, was plunged into a wave of soul-searching. Tens of thousands of people marched against anti-semitism.
The leader of the Barbarians gang, Youssouf Fofana, 28, a French school dropout turned petty criminal, has appeared in court accused of kidnapping, torture and assassination, with anti-semitism as an aggravating circumstance. Facing life imprisonment, he admits masterminding the kidnap but denies murder. A deliberately provocative character who has bombarded officials and lawyers with insults, he arrived in court shouting “Allah will be victorious”. Of the 26 other defendants, 15 are accused of taking part in the plot. Others are accused of adhering to a law of silence and not going to the police.
Halimi lived with his mother in eastern Paris and worked in a mobile phone shop in the city.
Fofana, a charismatic gang leader on a housing estate outside western Paris, had already tried and failed to kidnap people for cash when he spotted Halimi as a target. He asked a female friend to find “a girl who attracts boys” who could ensnare Halimi into a honey-trap. The girl persuaded a pretty 17-year-old she knew from her former children’s home to take part. The girl met Halimi in the shop and after a few days he accepted to go for a Coke. He accompanied her to what he thought was her home, where he was knocked out with ether and taken to an empty flat on the gang’s estate in Bagneux, west of Paris. A caretaker had given gang members keys to an empty flat.
Halimi was initially guarded by four teenagers who were promised €5,000. He was bound and beaten with broom handles. A ransom demand was immediately made for €450,000 from his family. Some of the accused told police that Fofana felt Jews were “loaded” with cash and their community always showed “solidarity” so would club together and pay up.
The gang made numerous calls to Halimi’s family, leaving a trail of videos and tapes dotted around Paris. A local rabbi was directed to a Paris letterbox where he found an cassette of a sobbing Halimi detailing his torture. A cousin was directed to a drycleaner where he found a video of Halimi, bound, weak and draped in a dressing gown.
During Halimi’s 24-day captivity, Fofana made two short return trips to his parents’ native Ivory Coast, hoping to receive the ransom by money transfer.
After 10 days he carried Halimi to a windowless, unheated basement cellar where the torture worsened, he was burned with cigarettes and slashed with knives. Halimi’s father refused to go to Brussels to hand over ransom cash and several days later Halimi was dumped. Before leaving him to die by rail tracks, Fofana is accused of stabbing him, dousing his body with alcohol and setting him on fire.
Halimi’s sister, Anne-Laure, told Le Parisien: “They attacked Ilan because they thought the Jewish community was rich. That was their explanation in 2006, after the events. It’s not acceptable. It’s not possible that there are still these types of crimes, acts this disgusting because someone belongs to a particular religion.”
All the defendants are French, but many, like Fofana, had immigrant parents. The paper Liberation said the case laid bare a housing estate underclass of young people desensitised by daily racism, poverty and despair. Halimi’s mother, who has written a book accusing the police of botching their investigation, has said she was sickened by the thought that people might have known what was happening but said nothing.
The trial is being held behind closed doors in a juvenile court, because two of the accused were under 18 at the time. It is expected to last 10 weeks.