Three officers who received suspended jail sentences over their violent assault of a French Black man are symbols of out-of-control racist police violence tolerated by the government in France.
The officers were convicted on Jan. 19 of “voluntary violence” towards the youth worker in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a working-class suburb with a large immigrant population.
The victim, Theodore Luhaka, was left disabled with a ruptured internal sphincter and a 10-centimeter lesion of the anal canal in a case parallel to that of Abner Louima in 1997. Luhaka, 22, was also beaten in the head and face during the police identity check on February 2, 2017.
After more than nine hours of deliberation, the court found Officer Marc-Antoine Castelain guilty of an offense rather than a crime, having refused to recognize the victim’s ‘permanent disability.’ He received a 12-month suspended prison sentence and a five-year prohibition from exercising his profession in public. His colleagues Jeremie Dulin and Tony Hochart received three-month suspended prison sentences.
“The message is very clear. This assault should not have happened. Théo had no reason to be arrested. The police officers this evening have been punished,” said Antoine Vey, Luhaka’s lawyer, according to the daily Le Monde.
Thibault de Montbrial, lawyer for Castelain, described the verdict as a “huge relief.” “For the first time, in the eyes of France, it has been established that … he is not a criminal as he has always maintained,” he was quoted to say.
Prosecutors had asked for a three-year jail term for Castelain for dealing the blow and six and three months for Dulin and Hochart respectively for taking part in the assault. The court rejected the charge of “deliberate violence resulting in permanent mutilation or infirmity.”
“I felt like I was raped,” Luhaka told the court—a charge which the officer denied and was later dropped. But the blow, a video of which was dissected frame by frame at the hearings, had no justification, the court decided.
Luhaka, now 29, said his ambition had been to become a professional soccer player, and he was about to join a Belgian third-division club that had scouted him when his life was thrown into turmoil, according to Henri Seckel of the Le Monde newspaper. He now suffers from incontinence and spends most of his time trapped in his apartment, watching TV.
“The fact is, I’m no longer of any use. The reality is that I’m dead. … Tomorrow, the trial will end; the gas, the feces, the leaks will continue, and my family will continue to see an undead man locked in his room.”
This was a rare case of police brutality to be tried in a court instead of at an internal disciplinary hearing.
Police watchdog body IPGN concluded before the trial that there had been a “disproportionate use of force” and that the baton blows were inflicted at a time when “Luhaka was not attacking the physical integrity of the police officers.”
Castelain said his baton blow was “legitimate” and had been taught at the police academy. The other officers kneed, punched and aimed pepper spray at Luhaka while he was handcuffed and on the ground. Officer Dulin claimed he did not mean to use the pepper spray.
“I regret the consequences […], but I think I did my job in compliance with the law,” said Hochart, adding that he only gave Luhaka a “light” punch in the stomach “to wind him.”
The incident triggered several days of rioting after a video surfaced online apparently showing Luhaka’s arrest on Feb. 2, 2017.
Castelain is no longer working in the field and now faces, like all convicted police officers, expulsion from the force.
Most recently, the shooting death of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old French citizen of North African descent, during a police ID check last June touched off days of rioting around France. The officer who fired into the stopped car driven by the young man has been charged with voluntary homicide but was released from detention during the investigation.
Police carry out nearly 14 million identity checks in France every year. A young Black or Arab person is 20 times more likely to be stopped by police, according to a study by the French group Defender of Rights.
A policing expert at France’s National Center for Scientific Research called Mr. Luhaka’s case “emblematic” of persistent problems such as identity checks that are a cover for racial profiling, or the disproportionate use of nonlethal but potentially dangerous weapons like tear gas, grenades and rubber bullets. (GIN)