Join Date: Aug 2004
Local Time: 05:05 AM
Grisly Murder Rekindles French Fears of Anti-Semitism, Immigrant Gangs
Murder of Jew in Paris rekindles concerns
Associated Press, February 24, 2006
PARIS -- The kidnap, torture and killing of a Parisian Jew has rekindled worries about anti-Semitism in France, where one of Europe's oldest plagues is seeping into poor French neighborhoods that are home to many Muslim immigrants and their French-born children.
Jewish leaders had been encouraged by a decline in attacks on Jewish cemeteries, synagogues and community centers from a peak in 2004. But on Feb. 13, police found 23-year-old French Jew Ilan Halimi naked, handcuffed, and gagged near railroad tracks in the Essonne region south of Paris. Traces of cigarette burns, iron burns, and various cuts made by knives and scissors covered his body. He died en route to the hospital, mainly of burns alleged to have been inflicted when gangleader Youssouf Fofana sprayed him with cleaning fluid before dumping him. Halimi, a Parisian mobile phone salesman, had been held and tortured for three weeks as his kidnappers made ransom demands and tauntingly suggested his parents "seek money from a synagogue".
Investigators now say the gang allegedly involved in Halimi's death was based in a housing project near Paris, in the suburb of Bagneux--an area like those where unrest erupted last fall and spread through neighborhoods that are home to many Muslims. So far, 14 people have been arrested. Seven have been charged with kidnapping, torture and murder aggravated by anti-Semitism. The aggravated offence carries an automatic life sentence. Gangleader Fofana was arrested Wednesday as a fugitive in the West African nation of Ivory Coast and is being returned to France, the French and Ivorian governments said.
After initially denying any racial aspect to the crime, the Government and media have now been spurred into a bout of anguish over the anti-Semitism that prevails on the immigrant-dominated estates. When Paris prosecutors initially revealed Halimi's case to the media on February 14, they asserted that "no element of the current investigation could link this murder to an anti-Semitic declaration or action." Initial press reports about Halimi did not mention that he was Jewish. The attendance of President Jacques Chirac and Premier Dominique de Villepin at Thursday night's memorial service for Halimi in Paris' Grand Synagogue was seen by many in the Jewish community as the state's formal acknowledgment that anti-Semitism was to blame for the kidnapping, torture and murder of the 23-year-old Parisian.
Police are widely held to have bungled the operation to find Halimi. The Jewish community had already been buzzing with rumors that several Jews had nearly avoided abduction after going on dates with blonde women (as Halimi had). Immediately after Halimi's abduction, his mother went to the police, citing the rumors and saying she believed he had been kidnapped by anti-Semites. The police dismissed her suspicions and investigated the case as a ransom demand by an unknown party.
Halimi's family and others in the Jewish community now allege that had the authorities acknowledged earlier that Halimi had been abducted for being a Jew, the investigation could have proceeded faster and he could possibly have been saved. When police finally issued Identikit pictures of the alleged female suspect, a young blonde woman turned herself in to police a few days later. Her information led almost immediately to the identification of the men who allegedly kidnapped and tortured Halimi. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy also now acknowledges the gang had indeed tried to kidnap four other Jews since December, adding that raids by police probing the killing had turned up documents supporting a Palestinian aid group and others with a militant Islamic character.
According to investigators, many living on the Bagneux estate knew that a man was being held in one of the flats, but police were unable to trace phone calls or e-mail ransom demands. (Photos of Ilan, naked, with a sack on his head and a gun pointed at his temple, were emailed to family members.) The building's janitor, who lent the gang the empty lodging without notifying the owner, is among the suspects in the ongoing investigation. According to an investigative source who asked not to be identified, police have come to realize that many in the building knew what was going on, but did not act since they knew Halimi was Jewish, or because they feared reprisals. There was also probable involvement of relatives and neighbors beyond the immediate circle of the gang, who were told about the Jewish hostage and dropped by to participate in the torture, the source said.
Bagneux is riddled with petty criminals, thugs and drug takers, and many of its residents--which include poor whites and beleaguered single mothers as well as immigrants--are fearful of revenge if they speak out. "Everyone here lives in a bubble, no one talks and everyone is on their guard," said a local woman, who gave her name as Yvette. "When youths hang out menacingly in the building entrance, no one dares to complain about it. You don't even dare go and pick up your mail when the dope smokers are there. You hurry into the lift and get into your flat for fear of reprisals." The episode pours cold water over Sarkozy's assertions that security on the housing estates is gradually improving after the riots between youths and police last November that for a while turned many areas into no-go zones.
As home to Western Europe's largest populations of Jews and Muslims, France saw a surge in anti-Semitic crime starting in 2000 after tensions flared between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. Since then, officials have walked a thin line, making forceful denunciations of anti-Semitism while taking care not to offend a Muslim community estimated at 5 million. France is home to about 600,000 Jews. But the enmity between Palestinians and Israelis has fanned Islamic militancy in France and even spilled into classrooms. Some Muslim students, for instance, have refused to attend classes on the Holocaust. Many French Jews, in turn, were angry that the government let the ailing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat into France for medical care in 2004.
The murder of Ilan Halimi invites comparison with the November 2003 killing of a Jewish disc jockey, Sébastien Selam. His Muslim neighbor, Adel, slit his throat, nearly decapitating him, and gouged out his eyes with a carving fork in his building’s underground parking garage. Adel came upstairs with bloodied hands and told his mother, “I killed my Jew, I will go to paradise.”