Families seek truth and justice over French custody deaths

March in memory of Mohamed Boukrourou, in Montbéliard. © Private

By Kartik Raj, Campaigner at Amnesty International

It is four years since Lamine Dieng died during an arrest in Paris, but as his sisters Ramata and Fatou Dieng browse through black and white photographs of their dead brother, their emotions are still visibly raw.

Time has failed to ease their sorrow they say, because like the family members of other people who have died in French custody in recent years, they are still waiting for justice.

“Lamine was not respected when he was alive, and his body was not respected either,” said Ramata, when we spoke to her last month. “And neither were we. Our pain was met with inhuman contempt.” She said her family “really felt dispossessed, treated like we were less than nothing” after their father was not allowed to perform Lamine’s last rites in keeping with their cultural practice.

Several family members of victims of deaths in police custody joined Amnesty International in Paris on Tuesday to launch a report based on longstanding research on a climate of de facto impunity for police ill-treatment in France.

Amnesty International’s latest report “France: ‘Our lives are left hanging’: Families of victims of deaths in police custody wait for justice to be done,” focuses on testimony gathered from the victims’ families, lawyers and others during a trip to Paris and its suburbs last month.

All the family members we spoke to — without exception – told us that the failure or delay of the authorities to deliver a truthful account of what happened in each case and to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice, left them unable to grieve.

Lives left hanging

Many of those we spoke to put it simply. Without truth, without justice, they feel like their lives have been left hanging.

All five of the men whose cases are covered in the report came from France’s “visible” ethnic minorities. Lamine Dieng, was a 25-year-old French citizen of Senegalese origin. The others were foreign nationals who lived in France: Abou Bakari Tandia, a 38-year-old Malian; Ali Ziri, a 69-year-old Algerian; Abdelhakim Ajimi, a 22-year-old Tunisian; and Mohamed Boukrourou, a 41-year-old Moroccan.

Over a lunch of merguez sausages and green beans in a home in a quiet commuter town in the Parisian region, Mohamed Boukrourou’s brother Abdelkader and sister Samira spoke to us about their brother’s death during arrest in Valentigney, eastern France, in November 2009.

As Mohamed’s nieces and nephews wandered in and out of the garden, his brother and sister told us about the impact of Mohamed’s death on the family, particularly on their mother who felt unable to mourn her son without an explanation for his death.

Samira said one of the things that hurt most was not being able to tell Mohamed’s young daughter how her father died: “It will always follow him: ‘he died in a police van’. People think there is no smoke without fire, if he died in a police van something must have happened.”

‘I have lost everything’

Boubaker Ajimi, the father of Hakim Ajimi, who died after being subject to dangerous restraint techniques in Grasse, southeastern France, in May 2008, told us by telephone about the impact Hakim’s death had on the family, and why they continue to seek the truth.

“I have lost everything,” he said. “I have lost my son. But I want justice to be done, for myself and for other people […] We will do everything we can, at least my conscience will be clear.”

In some cases, investigations have been opened and shut. In others they have dragged on for years. In only one case has a court date set for the trial of police officers — almost four years after the person’s death.

Alongside the publication of the report, representatives of Amnesty International in France, Algeria, Mali, Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia have signed a joint open letter to the French Minister of Justice asking for human rights compliant investigations into all these cases.

For the people we spoke to, making the truth known and seeing justice to be done, is crucial to ensuring their brother, son or nephew is not forgotten.

Souaibou Doucouré's nephew Abou Bakari Tandia died in custody in January 2005. © Amnesty International

“It’s been seven years and we still have no answer,” said Souaibou Doucouré, whose nephew Abou Bakari Tandia died in January 2005 after falling into a coma following his arrest in Courbevoie on 5 December 2004, after an identity check.

Souaibou met us at Amnesty’s office in Paris, where he spoke of his regret at being unable to tell Abou Bakari’s mother the cause of her son’s death, before she herself died.

His sad smile and deep voice giving him a quiet intensity, he added: “Even if it takes 20 years, as long as I live, I will continue to seek justice for Abou Bakari.”

The quiet, resolute anger and sadness that drives the families’ quest for truth and justice is clearly not going away.

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