French justice is working overtime and the mood is stern after thousands of teen arrests

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

French courts are working overtime in fast-track trials for more than 3,600 people arrested in unrest sparked by the police killing of a 17-year-old boy captured on video

French justice is working overtime and the mood is stern after thousands of teen arrestsBy JADE LE DELEY and LORI HINNANTAssociated PressThe Associated PressCRETEIL, France

CRETEIL, France (AP) — At 19, he was the oldest of the group of teens accused of lobbing Molotov cocktails at the police station of their suburban hometown.

“Why?” the judge asked Riad, who was taken into custody after he was identified in video surveillance images of the group from June 29, the second night of nationwide unrest following the police shooting of another suburban teenager outside Paris.

“For justice for Nahel,” Riad said. Slumped and slightly disheveled after five nights in jail, he said he didn’t know about the peaceful march organized by Nahel Merzouk’s family. He explained the cellphone photo of him holding a Molotov cocktail was “for social media. To give an image.”

In all, more than 3,600 people have been detained in the unrest across France since the death of Nahel on June 27, with an average age of 17, according to the Interior Ministry. The violence, which left more than 800 law enforcement officers injured, has largely subsided in recent days.

French courts are working overtime to process the arrests, including opening their doors through the weekend, with fast-track hearings around an hour long and same-day sentencing.

The prosecutor noted that Riad had learned where to acquire incendiary devices on Snapchat, the social network which the French government has singled out along with TikTok as fueling the unrest. Riad’s lawyer noted his record was clean, and he was blamed for no significant damage or any injuries.

By the end of Tuesday, Riad’s sentence was fixed: three years, with a minimum of 18 months behind bars, barred from his hometown of Alfortville for the duration of the term.

He collapsed on the stand: “I’m not ready to go to prison. I’m really not ready.” He threw a furtive kiss at his mother as he was led away.

Outside the packed courtroom, a pair of girls asked someone exiting what sentence he’d received. “Three years? That’s insane!” one exclaimed.

But the mood in France is stern after unrest that officials estimate caused 1 billion euros (more than $1 billion) in damage. The killing of 17-year-old Nahel came during a June 27 traffic stop. The shooting, which was captured on video, immediately stirred up long-simmering tensions between police and young people — nearly all minorities, and overwhelmingly French-born — in housing projects and disadvantaged suburbs.

Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti issued an order on Friday that demanded a “ strong, firm and systematic” judicial response. Hearings began the next day, as the unrest continued into the night.

“This is not hasty justice. The message I want to send is that justice is functioning normally in the face of an exceptional situation,” said Peimane Ghaleh-Marzban, the president of the tribunal in Bobigny.

“You have many first-time offenders — people who are not deep in delinquency, many minors in school who don’t (engage in) habitual criminal activity,” Ghaleh-Marzban said.

Despite that, the inclination to convict with jail time appeared to prevail.

In Lyon, France’s second-largest metropolitan area by population, the prosecutor said Thursday that of 26 adults who have appeared before the fast-track courts so far, 22 were convicted and sentenced to jail, three requested more time to prepare a defense, and only one was acquitted. According to BFM television on Thursday, 76% of people in the fast-track trials were placed in detention.

The U.N. rights office said the unrest showed it was time for France to reckon with its history of racism in policing, rather than just lash out in punishment, saying the government needed to ensure the use of force “always respects the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, nondiscrimination, precaution and accountability.”

Many French lawmakers demand the maximum penalty — and fast.

Olivier Marleix, a lawmaker from the conservative Republicans party, called for all cases involving the unrest to be handled within 100 days.

“Not to punish this would be an injury to all our law enforcement. Not to punish this would be a failure to understand the gravity of the threat to France,” he said Tuesday in the National Assembly.

The officer accused in the death of 17-year-old Nahel, meanwhile, is charged with voluntary homicide but has yet to appear in a courtroom or even have a court date set.

Rayan, an 18-year-old man detained with a group of about 30 young people throwing fuel on his local police station, was accused of filming a 14-second video of incendiaries being hurled at the building in Kremlin-Bicetre. In the footage, he cries out “Light them up!”

It was the first time he’d ever been arrested. He was taken to Fleury-Merogis prison, the European Union’s largest, and he wept on the stand on Tuesday. Prosecutors, who accused him of tripping a police officer while fleeing, asked for a 30-month sentence and for him to be barred from his hometown.

“I’m a good person. I’ve never had a problem with police. I have a family, I work,” he said, burying his face in his hands. “I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”

His brief hearing ended with a 10-month suspended sentence. His parents picked him up the same night from prison to take him home.


Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report from Paris.


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