French Police On Trial for Death Of Teens After 10 Year Wait

memorial for B. Traore and Zyed Benna
memorial for B. Traore and Zyed Benna

Two teenagers of North African descent, running from police, fell to their deaths and were electrocuted in a power substation 10 years ago. The officers will finally stand trial this week

It has been called the most important police trial in a decade, one that could expose the inequalities that plague France’s mostly segregated apartment complexes. The deaths of Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traore, 15, released deeply felt anger at a system widely perceived as unjust.

“I think about it every day; since the accident, we have stopped living,” said Adel Benna, 39, the brother of Zyed. “The wounds run so deep, they never healed.”

The incident took place on Oct. 27, 2005. Zyed and Bouna had been playing soccer and were walking home for the evening Ramadan meal when a police van, which had been called to a local building site, crossed their path. What happened next is in dispute. Police claimed the boys ran – others claimed they were chased. The two boys and a friend hid in an electric substation and received electric jolts of tens of thousands of volts. The friend, Muhittin Altun, 17, survived with severe burns.

After the boys’ deaths, judges opened an investigation and recommended that the police officers face trial. But the state prosecutor, arguing that no crime had been committed, went to the appeals court and the case was dropped. The families fought on through higher appeal courts and the trial will now run for five days in Rennes, Brittany.

The two officers are charged with “non-assistance to a person in danger” for allegedly failing to come to the boys’ aid. The police did not notify the French energy company EDF that the boys were hiding in the substation. The police officers’ lawyers have argued that they never thought the boys were in the substation. Much of the trial will hinge on a conversation between the two officers, one on the ground and one on the phone switchboard, and whether or not they discussed how dangerous the substation was.

If found guilty, the police officers could face up to five years in prison and a 75,000 Euro fine.

“To finally learn what happened and to understand,” said Bouna’s elder brother, Siyakha Traoré. The case would at last allow the families to grieve and would show that the boys’ deaths had been a wake-up call for the country.

At a demonstration in Paris on Sunday, Sihame Assbague, spokeswoman for the group Stop le Contrôle au Faciès – Stop Racial Profiling – told the Guardian newspaper: “It’s very difficult to get justice in police cases today. We feel there’s a certain impunity … Everyone is watching this case very closely. Zyed and Bouna’s deaths shocked France. We just want to see justice.”

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