On Friday, July 10, the leader of a Paris gang was sentenced to life in prison for torturing and murdering a young Jewish man, Ilan Halimi.
In February 2006, Halimi was kidnapped, tortured and killed because he was a Jew. He was held captive for twenty-four days during which he was stabbed and burned with cigarettes and acid before being found naked and handcuffed to a tree.
The murder of Ilan Halimi sparked outrage in the international community. Human rights and community groups urged then-President Jacques Chirac to ensure that Halimi's murderers were brought to justice. More than three years later, some level of justice and accountability was achieved with Friday's court decision.
Although Human Rights First does not take a position on the adequacy of sentencing decisions in individual cases, there have been mixed reactions to the verdict and sentencing of the twenty-seven defendants. On the one hand, the murderer, Yousseuf Fofana, was sentenced to life imprisonment - the maximum sentence prescribed by the French criminal code. On the other hand, the Halimi family lawyer Francis Szpiner told reporters that he was "scandalized" that other suspects received relatively light sentence recommendations. Some Jewish organizations in France called for a mass gathering outside the Justice Ministry to protest against "too-lenient court sentencing" for the gang of youths. Beyond Fofana, twenty-four other members were handed sentences ranging from six months suspended to 18 years in prison. Two were acquitted. Fofana's two main accomplices were sentenced to 15 and 18 years respectively, while a young woman who lured Halimi to his place of captivity will spend nine years in jail. On July 13, in apparent response to complaints of lenient sentences, French Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie called for a new trial of 14 of Fofana's accomplices in the murder of Halimi.
A guilty verdict and appropriate sentencing cannot bring back a life senselessly lost. However, the criminal justice process can send a strong message that society will not tolerate these crimes which weaken the sense of physical security felt by victim communities and attack the fundamental values of democratic societies.
A strong criminal justice response can also help families in their own recovery process. PBS is currently showcasing a documentary "Beyond Hatred" about a hate crime trial in France. Reviewed by Human Rights First, as well as by the mother of Matthew Shepard - a college student brutally attacked and left to die in Wyoming because he was gay - the film follows the struggle of another young man's family to seek justice in a vicious homophobic murder, highlighting the importance of criminal justice for the family's grieving process. The film's story begins in September 2002, when three skinheads were roaming a park in Rheims, France, looking to "do an Arab," when they settled for a gay man instead. Twenty-nine-year-old François Chenu was beaten unconscious and thrown into a river, where he drowned. "Beyond Hatred," which you can watch online in its entirety, tells the story of the crime's aftermath, following the Chenu family's brave and heartrending struggle to seek justice while trying to make sense of such pointless violence and unbearable loss. With remarkable dignity, they fight to transcend hatred and the inevitable desire for revenge.
Hate crimes are a daily reality all over the European continent--in fact, around the world. People suffer violence because they are black, Jewish, Roma or Muslim or because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. As Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg stated, "hate crimes [are] the ugly face of racism, antisemitism, anti-Gypsyism, Islamophobia and homophobia." In a most recent reminder of this "ugly face," last week in a German courtroom, 32-year-old Marwa El Sherbini, a pregnant Muslim woman, was stabbed to death by a man with a history of anti-Muslim prejudice. The murder took place in front of Marwa's three-year-old son, and her husband was mistakenly shot and wounded by German police as he tried to subdue the attacker.
Government authorities have a responsibility to vigorously respond to these shameful and serious crimes. Authorities must send a clear, consistent message condemning all forms of bias-motivated violence without reservation and reasserting their commitment to combat it. They must equip police, prosecutors and judges with the resources and training necessary to investigate these crimes, thoroughly prosecute them before a court of law, and hand down sentences that reflect their harm to society. Though there is far too little accountability in most hate crime cases, the investigations and trials into the murders of Ilan Halimi and François Chenu illustrate the important role of the criminal justice authorities in confronting this rising tide of hate violence and protecting those at risk to it.
Paul LeGendre is the Director of the Fighting Discrimination program at Human Rights First. Join them at facebook.com/humanrightsfirst and twitter.com/humanrights1st