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French police aquitted over teen deaths that sparked 2005 riots

A court sketch shows French police officers Sebastien Gaillemin and Stephanie Klein attending their trial in Rennes on 16 March, 2015
A court sketch shows French police officers Sebastien Gaillemin and Stephanie Klein attending their trial in Rennes on 16 March, 2015 AFP/ Benoît Peyrucq

Two French police officers, accused of failing to help two teenagers whose electrocution in 2005 in a power substation led to weeks of riots in the Paris suburbs, have been acquitted. A court in in the western city of Rennes determined the evidence did not prove that the officers knew the teens were in imminent danger.

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Lawyers for the families of Bouna Traoré, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, argued that the police did not come to the aid of the teens when their lives were in danger, which in France is a crime.

But to prove it the prosecution must show that the officers knew of the danger and that they deliberately did not send help.

Traoré and Benna were electrocuted in Clichy-sous-Bois on 27 October 2005. They hid in the substation run by the French power company, EDF, after police had pursued them as they were going home from a football match at the end of the day.

They died about 30 minutes after police left the site, while a third teenager, Muhittin Altun, survived with burns on ten percent of his body.

Three weeks of rioting followed the deaths.

Police officers Sébastien Gaillemin and Stéphanie Klien were subsequently charged.

A five-day trial in March focused on what Gaillemin said on the police radio after he saw the three young men approaching the EDF station: "If they enter the site there is not much hope they will make it alive."

The call was received by Klein, 38, who was an intern at the time.

The court acquitted Klein, after dermining that, as an inexperienced police officer, Klein could not have known the seriousness of the situation, either by the tone of voice on the radio or from knowing the area.

The defence argued that Gaillemin had not actually seen the teens enter the substation and that he was only speaking about the possibility of their doing so.

Gaillemin said he checked twice to see if the boys were inside the station before he left the scene.

In its ruling the court said it was impossible to determine Gaillemin’s intent based on the radio communication alone, and that had he been aware of the danger, he would have reacted.

Mohammed Mechmache does not accept these arguments, nor verdict. The founder of AC le feu, which he started after the 2005 riots, he says the case shows that France’s justice system has two levels.

"This system works one way for some people, and is scornful of others," he told RFI, after the verdict. "It judges some people constantly, even if they are not guilty of anything."

He says the case had problems from the beginning, and it has dragged through the courts because the families and the lawyers had to push for a case to be opened in the first place.

Prosecutors had to be ordered by France's highest court to try the case.

"The fact that the lawyers did not let up allowed us to gather enough evidence to go to court," said Mechmache.

Anti-racist groups have called for a demonstration Monday evening in front of the courthouse in Bobigny, where the original trial took place.

The teens’ families have opened a civil suit, and are seeking 1.6 million euros in compensation and damages.

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