Four French police officers were charged with beating a black music producer a week after their allegedly unprovoked attack revealed the country in a scandalous video.
The footage showed police officers hitting, kicking and using a truncheon on Michel Zecler, who claimed to have been abused racially on several occasions. Prior to the release of the video, officers accused 41-year-old Zecler of resisting the arrest and attacking them.
There were three of the officers mis en examen – the closest thing officially accused in France is “deliberate violence by a public official, a person who has suffered in a group and arm” and “falsification of statements”. The fourth officer, who fired a tear gas canister, was charged with “intentional violence”.
Two of the officers – a 44-year-old brigade with 19 years of exemplary service and a 23-year-old – are in custody and two have been released on parole.
Rémy Heitz, the Paris prosecutor, told a news conference on Sunday that the three officers in the video said he had “panicked” but admitted that “their blows were not justified and were mainly out of fear”.
“They denied all racist insults,” Heitz added. He suggested that three of the officers remain in custody “to avoid communication from perpetrators or pressure on witnesses”.
Officers said they approached Zecler because he wasn’t in a mask and because his bag smelled of strong cannabis. After searching the bag, police found only 0.5 grams of cannabis, Heitz said.
The case again raised fears that a new law approved by French MPs last week, restricting the right to publish or broadcast images of police officers and gendarmes on duty in certain circumstances, could be used to cover up alleged violations.
Critics of section 24 of the Global Security Act, awaiting Senate approval, argue that the video of the Zecler attack could not have been made public under the law. According to the government, the publication of such images would be punished only to the detriment of the physical or psychological well-being of the officers.
Jean Castex, the Prime Minister, promised that an independent committee would examine Article 24 with a view to rewriting it. Zecler, who was detained for 48 hours without the film, said, “I would be in jail now.”
On Saturday, a demonstration against the law in central Paris with violently degenerated vehicles and a pub set on fire, banks, shops and offices were damaged and stones and fireworks were targeted at security forces, who responded with tear gas and anti-riot tactics.
Among the injured was 24-year-old Syrian photojournalist Ameer Alhalbi, an employee of Agence France-Press (AFP), who was unable to get to the hospital for several hours. Alhalbi said he remembered being involved in the Syrian civil war. “Aleppo came back to me,” he said.
Phil Chetwynd, AFP’s global news director, demanded that police investigate the case. “We are shocked by the injuries suffered by our colleague, Ameer Alhalbi, and we condemn the unprovoked violence,” Chetwynd said.
Police reported that 81 people had been arrested. According to Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, 98 police officers were injured. “Those behind the violence will be persecuted,” Darmanin said.
The attack on Zecler was the third case of alleged police violence filmed last week. While the makeshift migrant camp was dismantled in central Paris last Monday, one officer was filmed for deliberately overthrowing a fleeing migrant and another was accused of targeting a French journalist three times. The police ‘own disciplinary unit is investigating these cases.
A critical report was also released last week on the 2017 arrest of a young black man who suffered life-threatening injuries after allegedly sodomized with a police wand. Le Monde described the report on the arrest of Théodore Luhaka as a “relentless demonstration of a series of police failures”. The police officers involved have avoided disciplinary proceedings, but now they can face criminal proceedings.
In September, a French journalist who broke into the Paris police headquarters described a culture of racism and violence in which officers acted with impunity.