Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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24 Shevat 5766 - February 22, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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After Street Protest, Magistrate Says French Suspects will Face Hate-Crime Charges

By Arnon Yaffeh, Paris

The Jewish community and others in France were appalled by the kidnapping and murder of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jewish sales assistant who was abducted by a gang of Moslem Africans and Arabs from the Arab neighborhood of Bagneux in the suburbs south of Paris. Up until Monday, the press and police referred to the group as the "gang of barbarians" implying that they are violent without prejudice, but the Jewish community says that it is an antisemitic gang that imitates Iraqi-style Islamic terrorism.

On Sunday, hundreds of Jews marched in grief and fear from the Place de la Republique to the 11th Arrondissement where Halimi was kidnapped. During the demonstration they protested French authorities' handling of antisemitic crime. Once again the authorities tried to cover up the antisemitic nature of the shocking incident. However on Monday the investigating magistrate placed seven suspects under formal investigation for kidnapping, illegal imprisonment, criminal association and "murder linked to the victim's religion."

"Every time Jews are harmed or a beis knesses is burned down they announce they found no antisemitic motive and call on the Jewish community to keep the peace — as if the Jews were attacking Arabs," said one demonstrator on Sunday, when the authorities were still calling it nonracial barbarism.

A non-Jewish woman said she was taking part in the march because "it was intolerable in France for a young man, whether Jewish or French, to be tortured for three weeks." The incident marked the first time that a group of Arabs and Africans, all Moslem, kidnapped, tortured and killed a Jew in France.

The public prosecutor said that the abductors tortured their victim with barbaric cruelty beyond description. The family members say the kidnappers did not appear interested in ransom money. Jews have lost faith in French authorities after numerous efforts to whitewash arson attacks on botei knesses and assaults against Jews in Arab neighborhoods. Every announcement is now considered suspect.

Early Friday morning police arrested 13 Arabs and North Africans ranging in age from 17 to 32 who were involved in the kidnapping, and also located the apartment where Halimi had been held. At 4:00 am 200 policemen from a special unit raided a cluster of apartments, removing the suspects one after the next. Three have been charged with kidnapping and as accomplices to murder while 10 are still under investigation.

The gang leader, an African named Youssef Fofana, managed to escape and disappear. The concierge allowed the gang to use the apartment where Halimi was held. An Arab woman who was used to lure the victim, led police to the apartment.

Sammy Ghozlan, who serves as liaison between the police and the Jewish community, found it hard to understand how nobody in the apartment building heard or saw anything. According to a report in Liberation, residents claim they knew nothing.

"It couldn't have been in this building," one said. "The basements and empty apartments were barricaded with cement."

Others say they knew Fofana as a half-Arab, half-African involved in thefts. In these neighborhoods delinquents easily go from petty theft to antisemitic attacks. Neighborhood residents said it was not an organized gang but a band of Arabs and north Africans that formed around the kidnapping, including a college student wanted by police.

As of Sunday, the police were still claiming that the crime was not antisemitic in nature. However by Tuesday morning they began to acknowledge that it was specifically directed against a Jew.

At first the press referred to the kidnapping victim only by his first name, intentionally omitting his last name which is recognizably Jewish. Halimi's family and the rest of the Jewish community never accepted the police claim. In phone calls to the family the kidnappers recited excerpts from the Koran and antisemitic slurs. They also sent an email message with a picture of Halimi blindfolded with a pistol pointed at his head, mimicking kidnappers in Iraq.

According to Le Monde the police wasted valuable time on suspicions that the kidnapping was staged to extort money from the Jewish community. At one point they did not even believe Halimi had been kidnapped.

Police claim that the gang tried to kidnap Jews on six previous occasions, using the same method. One near-victim was saved at the last moment when the would-be kidnappers heard a car approaching and fled.

The phone calls to Halimi's family indicate the gang was very familiar with the Jewish community and apparently had been conducting surveillance of Jewish businesses and botei knesses. Investigators told Le Monde that one of the suspects admitted they had searched for and marked Jews for assassination and kidnapping.

"The antisemitic motive appears unlikely," said Public Prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin. CRIF, an umbrella organization for Jewish groups in France, accepted the police's claim and asked the Jewish community to remain calm until findings are released. But according to suspicions the gang planned to kidnap and kill Jews and the ransom demand was a peripheral motive. Although the family offered to deliver ransom money they repeatedly cancelled arranged meetings. Several of the kidnappers were arrested in Belgium, raising suspicions of links to an international Islamic terrorist group. In a photograph, the gang leader wears a Moslem-style beard. The gang had electronic equipment to prevent the police from tracing or tapping their calls.

Late last week Halimi was found near death alongside the train tracks, bound and blindfolded with stab wounds throughout his body. He died soon thereafter.

The ransom demands appear to have been designed to veil intentions to torture Jews. Halimi was from a poor family and an unlikely target for a ransom kidnapping. Members of the Jewish community believe that it is pretty clear that he was abducted because he was Jewish. In one of the calls to the family the kidnappers demanded they raise 450,000 euros from the Jewish community, later lowering their demand to 5,000 euros. They even called a rov and demanded he collect money in botei knesses.

One thousand stunned members of the Jewish community attended the levaya on Friday. The family could not afford to pay the burial expenses, which were covered by Jewish donors.

The public prosecutor disseminated pictures of Fofana, dubbed in the press as "the brains of the barbarians," making him the most wanted person in France. Before the funeral he called Halimi's father to demand the ransom money. The public prosecutor maintains the motive was extortion and not antisemitism. But he himself said he cannot explain why they made minimal attempts to obtain the ransom money they asked for and then tortured Halimi to death and previously tried to kidnap only Jews. He speculated that the killers were influenced by television and Internet images and perpetrated the acts of torture as violence for its own sake.

The police held a press conference, giving wide publicity to the abominable crime. Liberation criticized the publicity, saying it was excessive for a local crime by a neighborhood gang and was because the suspects hail from an Arab suburb. Arab sociologist Marwan Mohammed, an expert on suburban gangs, even posited that Halimi's killers used cruelty just to strengthen their power over the gang.

Early this week, just days after the funeral, CRIF held a festive banquet for Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. Organization Chairman Roger Cukierman promised that the Jews would remain calm. Other Jewish organizations criticized CRIF's conduct, saying it does not represent the average Jew but only a handful of prominent personages who just seek honor. Serge Heidenberg, head of the opposition in CRIF, said the wealthy are detached from the Jews and their problems, preferring to hold lavish affairs rather than act to preserve their safety. No CRIF leaders joined the 3,000 protesters at the march against government inaction.


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