L'Affaire Ilan HALIMI

"After a Sensational Crime", a Trial Marked by Quiet By MEG BORTIN Published: May 17, 2009

PARIS - In the two and a half weeks since 27 people went on trial here for the brutal 2006 kidnapping, torture and killing of a young Jewish man, little has filtered out about the proceedings.

Despite the sensational nature of the case and the serious issues it has raised - from the rise of anti-Semitism in some sectors of French society to the way the police handled the investigation - the French are essentially unable to follow the courtroom drama because of a law that bans the public and the media from trials that involve minors.

The hallways outside the courtroom at the Palais de Justice in central Paris are largely empty save for the gendarmes who strictly monitor access. Absent are the reporters, photographers and television crews that would fill the 24-hour news cycle for a similar trial in Britain or the United States.

Missing, also, for better or worse, is a public engagement with the troubling issues that were raised by the horrifying nature of the crime, in which Ilan Halimi, 23, was kidnapped, bound in tape, hidden in sordid conditions, beaten, slashed, burned and finally thrown into the street after 24 days, only to die of his wounds before reaching a hospital.

"I find it abnormal that the trial is being held behind closed doors," his mother, Ruth Halimi, said during a break in the trial. She said the defendants were displaying a casual attitude that she found shocking. "The trial should have been held in public," she said, "so that everyone could know what took place."

The law mandating that the trial be closed applies to defendants who were under 18 at the time of the crime, even if they are no longer minors. In this case, two of the accused were 17 when Mr. Halimi was kidnapped. Only they can ask that the secrecy be lifted, and they did not do so.

Lawyers on both sides of the case voiced regret.

"The culture of secrecy has no place in a democracy," said Daphné Pugliesi, who is representing Cédric Birot Saint-Yves, who has been charged with being one of Mr. Halimi's "jailers." Ms. Pugliesi asserted that the aim of a criminal trial was "for society to understand the reasons why a grave crime like this one was committed."

Francis Szpiner, the attorney of the Halimi family, noted that the European Convention on Human Rights, which is above French law, states as a principle that trials should be open. "I think we need to change this law," Mr. Szpiner said. "We should say that trials are open and that it's up to minors to request an exception, and not the contrary."

But François Dubet, a sociology professor at Bordeaux University, said the law had some positive aspects: "Society is being protected from the spectacle of a particularly abominable crime. A spectacle that could lead to excessive reactions among the public - for example viewing all blacks as anti-Semites."

In the United States, only a narrowly tailored government interest of the highest order can justify even the partial closure of a trial. It is almost inconceivable that an entire murder trial involving several defendants, some of them adults, would be closed because some minors were involved.

But Mr. Dubet contended that the French feel more strongly than Americans about protecting the rights of minors in such situations.

As a result of the media ban, virtually nothing will be known soon about what is said by the accused - 18 men and 9 women, all French nationals aged 20 to 35 - or the 162 witnesses and 50 experts who are expected to testify before the trial is to conclude on July 10.

The limited coverage now is in contrast to the extensive analysis and reporting when the horrific details of Mr. Halimi's death emerged. In the aftermath, many people turned out to demonstrate against racism and anti-Semitism in marches in Paris and other cities.

The accused ringleader in the case, Youssouf Fofana, now 28, is charged with kidnapping, acts of torture and barbarism, and premeditated murder aggravated by the fact that Mr. Halimi was Jewish. According to news accounts published in 2006, Mr. Fofana told the police that he had sought to capture a Jew because "they're loaded with dough."

The other defendants are charged with crimes ranging from entrapment and sequestration that resulted in death to failing to assist a person in peril.

The defendants come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. Like Mr. Fofana, many of them lived in the southern Paris suburb of Bagneux, where Mr. Halimi was held.

When the trial began on April 29, reporters were allowed into the courtroom for a few hours - long enough to hear Mr. Fofana shout "Allah Akbar," God is Great, and declare his date of birth as Feb. 13, 2006, the day Mr. Halimi was found dying alongside railroad tracks in a suburb south of Bagneux.

Mr. Fofana's outburst set the tone for proceedings that have been disrupted by threats to jurors, threats to Jewish defense lawyers and a nationwide strike by prison guards whose clashes with riot police officers last week blocked the transfer of defendants to the court.

On May 7, the trial was suspended for a day when one of the accused complained that he had been punched and hit by a Taser during clashes outside his prison, and pulled up his T-shirt to show the marks, according to the newspaper Le Monde and a blog published by the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, which has stood out among news media for trying to follow the trial daily, mostly through conversations with lawyers.

On May 12, according to the Observateur blog, the presiding judge, Nadia Ajjan, appointed two new lawyers to represent Mr. Fofana because of the frequent absence from court of his original attorneys: Emmanuel Ludot, who helped defend Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2004, and Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, who is married to the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal and has defended several radical Islamists.

One of the issues debated since the crime took place is the police's handling of Mr. Halimi's kidnapping. Mrs. Halimi asserts in "24 Days," a scathing book published last month, that the elite Criminal Brigade bungled the case by imposing secrecy during the kidnapping and by missing several opportunities to arrest Mr. Fofana, who made two trips to Ivory Coast while Mr. Halimi was being held.

Mrs. Halimi contends that the Criminal Brigade failed to inform other police branches about the kidnapping, allowing Mr. Fofana to elude capture on at least two occasions in Paris and when going through passport control at the airport.

Asked about those allegations, a police spokesman declined to comment on the book but said that if an inquiry was deemed necessary, police investigators would be called in by the judicial authorities to examine how the case was handled. He declined to give his name.

Lawyers interviewed on the sidelines of the trial said they believed the defendants were not tightly organized gangsters, but rudderless youths who had been influenced by anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Mr. Halimi was kidnapped on Jan. 20, 2006, just weeks after rioting erupted across France in low-income suburbs. Many of the rioters were young people of North African or black African origin, and many were Muslim.

Mrs. Halimi said the anti-Semitic aspect of her son's kidnapping made it all the more imperative for the world to know what was said at the trial. "We need to educate people, beginning with the parents so that they can educate their children," she said. "We need to educate them that all people are equal."

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