Family of victim of alleged police brutality hopes for convictions following new medical expertise

Two and a half years after young black French man - Adama Traoré - died of asphyxiation in police custody, new medical expertise sheds light on the circumstances of his death. The family hopes it will lead to the conviction of three police officers, but lawyers defending the gendarmes denounce the methodology used.

Assa Traoré (centre) marches for justice for her brother Adama.
Assa Traoré (centre) marches for justice for her brother Adama. Bertrand Guay / AFP

24-year old Traoré died in unexplained circumstances in July 2016 after being arrested by gendarmes during an identity check in his home town of Beaumont-sur-Oise, just outside Paris.

The official cause of death was found to be acute asphyxiation linked to two medical conditions, sickle cell disorder and sarcoidosis, but his family has always believed it was linked to the way he was restrained by the gendarmes.

A new medical assessment by four eminent medical experts would appear to support their claims.

The report handed over to Le Monde claims that, contrary to previous medical assessments, Traoré’s death “cannot be linked either to sarcoidose nor sickle cell disorder, neither a combination of the two”.

The rare diseases specialists also questioned the competence of previous experts, denouncing their “biased conclusions from both an intellectual and medical ethics perspective”.

“More logical and simpler explanations for the cause of death,” they’re quoted as saying, would be “mechanical asyphyxia” due to the way Traoré was held during his arrest.

They cite evidence presented in court hearings which showed that Traoré had borne the weight of three gendarmes when they employed “prone" or "face-down restraint”, a technique authorised in France, though banned in several EU countries.

“It’s an extremely important medical opinion,” said the family’s lawyer Yassine Bouzrou, “because it removes the links between Adama Traoré’s possible medical conditions and death. Above all, this new expertise clearly puts forward the violent nature of the arrest as the probable cause of asphyxiation which led to his death.”

Family’s fight for justice

Traoré’s relatives, who requested and paid for the new medical expertise, have continually denounced the violence around his arrest via two support committees "Justice for Adama" and "The truth for Adama". They accuse the gendarmes of failing to help the young black man as he was left handcuffed and struggling for breath while waiting for first responders to arrive.

Assa Traoré, his sister who is leading the family’s fight for justice, said the report confirmed what they had always believed.

“We are relieved. We’ve been calling for the truth for nearly three years now, and today four eminent experts have written in black and white that his death was due to asphyxiation - that the gendarmes are responsible for Adama Traoré's death, and that the technique used in his arrest led to his asphyxia. We have all the elements - to put them on trial and get a conviction.”

In the hands of the Public Prosecutor’s office

The report was handed in extremis to investigating judges in Paris on Monday despite the fact that they had ended their investigation into the cause of death in December 2018.

The three gendarmes had been questioned in November as assisting witnesses for failing to help a person in danger, but were not charged.

The case is now in the hands of the public prosecutor’s office.

Lawyer Yassine Bouzrou says the prosecutor has to take the report into consideration and believes the case is now at a turning point.

“This expertise has considerable medical value. So yes it’s a turning point. If, to put it simply, the judges respect the law, then this new expertise should lead to a trial; the gendarmes must be brought before the courts.”

Trial by media

Lawyers defending the gendarmes have criticised the family’s decision to hand the medical report over to the press, denouncing what it called a “media investigation”.

“The conditions in which this document was established are more than nebulous”, three lawyers for the defence said in a communiqué published on Wednesday.

“[The conditions] raise legitimate questions notably as to the methodology adopted and the elements brought to the attention of self-proclaimed experts.”

The fight against alleged police brutality

The unexplained circumstances of Traoré’s death on 19 July 2016 and the family’s belief there had been a state cover-up led to five nights of violence in his home town.

And there have been several marches against alleged police brutality.

In February 2017, there were protests and riots in high-rise housing estates around Paris following another violent arrest in the town of Aulnay-sous-Bois. A police officer was charged with raping a young man, Théo Luhaka, with a baton -  Luhaka spent several weeks in hospital and received a much-publicised visit by then-president François Hollande.

According to studies by the non-profit Christians for the Abolition of Torture, between 10 to 15 people die in France each year following police intervention. The number of young men of black or north African origin, living in poor neighbourhoods, is disproportionately high.

France's Défenseur des Droits (Defender of Rights) has found that young men perceived as Arab or black are 20 times more likely to have their identities checked.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Keep up to date with international news by downloading the RFI app