French policemen face trial over teen deaths that sparked riots in 2005

Top court reinstates case over 2005 incident that sparked worst unrest in France in 40 years

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 November, 2012, 5:03am

Two police officers could soon face trial over the deaths of two teenagers from a high-rise estate who were electrocuted in 2005, sparking the worst rioting in France for 40 years.

After seven years of legal wrangling, and lobbying by the boys' families, France's highest court on Wednesday overturned a previous ruling saying the case against the police officers should be dropped.

The path is now open for what could be one of the most important police trials in recent years, a landmark moment in the tense relationship between youths on poor estates and France's security services.

For seven years, the faces of Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traore, 15, have continued to symbolise the dire relations and extreme mistrust between police and youths living in France's tower blocks.

The two teenagers were electrocuted while hiding in a power substation in Clichy-sous-Bois, north of Paris, in October 2005. Another 17-year-old survived with severe burns.

The boys had been returning from a football match with a group of friends, rushing to get home for the evening meal during Ramadan.

A subsequent inquiry found they had not committed any crime but when they saw a police van cross their path they fled. They were chased by police and hid in a highly dangerous electricity substation. Their deaths by electrocution triggered riots on the boys' run-down estates in Clichy-sous-Bois, which then spread across France.

Riots went on for weeks at housing estates across the country. More than 9,000 vehicles and dozens of public buildings and businesses were set on fire as the government invoked emergency powers to quell the worst unrest in mainland France in nearly 40 years.

French judges initially recommended that two police officers should face trial on charges of "non-assistance to a person in danger" for 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.

But the regional prosecutor's office argued that there was not enough evidence to show the officers knew the boys were inside the power station. However, one of the officers was discovered to have said on internal radio that if the boys went into the substation they "didn't have much of a chance". Activists in Clichy-sous-Bois had said if the case did not go to trial it would be a message that poor families on run-down estates did not deserve justice.