It's rare for public prosecutors to appeal successful convictions in high-profile criminal cases. But that's exactly what French justice officials are now doing, arguing that sentences handed out to several members of a gang that tortured a young Jewish man to death on the outskirts of Paris were insufficient punishment for their barbarous anti-Semitic crime.
Hundreds of people gathered outside France's Justice Ministry on the evening of July 13 to hail the decision by French authorities to re-try 14 of the 27 people convicted of the abduction and brutal 2006 murder of cell-phone salesman Ilan Halimi. Though the verdict announced on July 10 handed out stiff sentences to the leaders of the gang, Halimi's family, supporters and Jewish groups across the nation were outraged that 14 defendants got lighter punishments than prosecutors had requested. In response, Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie announced Monday evening that she'd ordered prosecutors to appeal any sentence that was less than the state had sought.
No new trial will be held for the group's leader, Youssouf Fofana, 28, who received a life sentence without possibility of parole for 22 years. The other two main accomplices in the kidnapping and torture of Halimi, who was 23, received the maximum sentences of 18 and 15 years. Other members of the self-dubbed "Gang of Barbarians" received sentences ranging between six months and several years.
The plot to kidnap Halimi was predicated on the gang's belief that all Jews are rich. The group had tried to abduct two other Jewish men before ensnaring Halimi a focus that, along with Fofana's outrageous baiting of Halimi's family during the trial led French public opinion to belatedly agree with Jewish groups that the crime had been anti-Semitic in nature.
"It's the first time since the Shoah since Nazi occupation, [French] collaboration, and deportations that a Jew was murdered in France purely because he was Jewish," Sammy Ghozlan, president of the National Office of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, told reporters outside the Justice Ministry following the decision to hold a retrial.
Halimi's family and backers want the new trial and sentences to both punish the brutality of the murder and serve as a warning that anti-Semitism will not be tolerated in France. They also want the new trial to be held in public and not behind closed doors as the first one was. Under French law, when someone accused of committing a crime as a minor as was the case with one member of the "Gang of Barbarians" the hearings are closed to the press and public to protect the defendant's identity. Officials have yet to say whether they'll move for the new trial to be opened up.
But members of the legal community have voiced concerns about the political intervention in France's independent justice system. That action provokes even more alarm given French President Nicolas Sarkozy's planned reforms to shift investigative control of criminal cases to state prosecutors who, as political appointees, critics accuse, are more attentive to the interests of their governmental mentors than to the law.
And despite the unspeakable brutality and hatred in Halimi's murder that has unleashed wide condemnation of anti-Semitism in France, some officials are worried that the retrial will set a bad precedent. "Justice isn't the same thing as vengeance," warned Emmanuelle Perreux, president of one of the French legal profession's main labor unions, on radio station RTL. "Giving in to pressure from any [civil party] that believes, and will always believe, that punishment isn't severe enough strikes me as troubling." Perhaps, but as those pushing for a new trial note, adding a few years to prison sentences is a trifle compared to the fate Halimi met.