Closed trial in Halimi killing rankles French Jews

French Jews held a mass rally against racism and anti-Semitism in Paris following the death of Ilan Halimi in February 2006. (CRIF)

French Jews held a mass rally against racism and anti-Semitism in Paris following the death of Ilan Halimi in February 2006. (CRIF)

PARIS (JTA) — For the Jewish community here, the decision to bar journalists from the trial of gang members accused of kidnapping and torturing a 23-year-old French Jew to death has struck a raw nerve.The Paris court’s April 29 ruling adds insult to injury, French Jews say, by further suppressing what many believe was the motive for the murder of Ilan Halimi: anti-Semitism.

“It was the law of silence that killed Ilan Halimi,” said Francis Szpiner, a lawyer for the Halimi family. “And it has imposed itself again.”

Halimi was abducted in late January 2006, and was held and tortured for more than three weeks before his broken body, burned and stabbed, was dumped near railway tracks in a suburb south of Paris. He was found on Feb. 13, 2006 and died on the way to the hospital.

The killing prompted a mass demonstration of solidarity with the Halimis, mostly from the Jewish community, and against anti-Semitism several days later in Paris.

Many, including the victim’s mother, criticized the police for their refusal to investigate the possibility that the kidnapping was anti-Semitic in nature. Had they done so, the critics reason, the police would have had a much greater chance at profiling the suspects and rescuing Halimi before his death.

Halimi’s family and Jewish institutions said they had hoped for an open trial to help raise France’s awareness of the problem of anti-Semitism — a problem they say is too often overlooked here.

Two of the 27 suspects in the case were under age at the time of Halimi’s death; French law does not require open trials for juveniles.

A closed trial “will take the tone of a family drama, whereas we needed a trial about prejudices capable of killing and about 21st century anti-Semitism,” Raphael Haddad, head of the French Jewish Student Union, told the French daily Le Monde.

“Denying the reasons for his torture killed him a second time,” Halimi’s mother, Ruth, wrote in her book, “24 Days,” about her son’s case.

She says in the book that police and much of the French public showed “obstinate refusal” to see the crime as a racist, anti-Semitic act.

“My fellow French citizens have a problem acknowledging the reality of anti-Semitism” due to “a climate of confusion,” said Adrien Barrot, author
 of “If This Is a Jew: Reflections on the Death of Ilan Halimi."

Others disagree. Police have said the suspects, members of a gang calling itself the Barbarians, targeted Halimi because he was Jewish and they believed Jews would be worth a large ransom. The judges in the case must determine whether Halimi was targeted because his tormentors were anti-Semitic.

Though French news sources such as the daily Liberation referred to a “trial of an anti-Semitic crime” in this week’s coverage of the subject, public opinion heard in various media discussion forums often demonstrated uncertainty over whether suspects acted out of religious hatred.

“He was attacked because his abductors believed that as a Jew, he was rich. It’s idiotic, but different from anti-Semitic hate,” someone named Phillipe H. wrote on the daily le Monde news Web site.

The trial will determine whether the gang’s leader, Youssouf Fofana, is guilty of premeditated murder, torture and abduction based on the victim’s religion or ethnicity. The other suspects face a variety of charges.

Author Alexandre Lévy, who wrote a book, “The Barbarian Gang: Chronicle of a Police Fiasco,” about police and media mishandling of the case, says the French public still doesn’t quite know how to handle the case of Halimi’s murder.

“The French Republic doesn’t know how to formulate words around what happened,” Levy said.

Clarifying, he said, “Politically it’s very delicate in France to be the first to talk about anti-Semitism. It’s like the nuclear button.”

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