Four French policemen have been charged with the beating of a black music producer a week after their allegedly unprovoked attack was exposed in a video scandalizing the country.
The footage shows police officers punching, kicking and using a baton at Michel Zecler, who claims to have also abused him on several occasions. Before the video came to light, police accused Zecler, 41, of resisting arrest and attacking them.
Three of the officers were my under review – which comes closest to being formally indicted in France – of “deliberate violence by a person of public authority, in a group and with one arm”, and “false statements”. The fourth policeman, who fired a tear gas canister, was charged with “willful violence”.
Two of the officers – a 44-year-old brigadier with seemingly exemplary 19 years of service and a 23-year-old man – are being held, while two have been released on conditional release.
At a press conference on Sunday, the Paris public prosecutor, Rémy Heitz, said the three officers seen in the video said they “panicked” but admitted “their beatings were not justified and they mainly had acted out of fear ”.
“They denied any racist insult,” Heitz added. He suggested that three of the police officers should remain in detention “to prevent the perpetrators from communicating or putting pressure on witnesses”.
Police said they approached Zecler because he was not wearing a mask and because there was a strong smell of cannabis coming from his bag. After searching the bag, police found only 0.5g of cannabis, Heitz said.
The case has again raised fears that a new law approved by French MPs last week restricting the right to publish or broadcast images of police and gendarmes on duty under certain circumstances could be used to cover up suspected wrongdoing. .
Critics of Section 24 of the Global Security Act, which is awaiting Senate approval, say the video of Zecler’s attack could not have been made public under the law. The government says it would criminalize the publication of such images only “with the intent to harm the physical or psychological well-being” of officers.
Prime Minister Jean Castex has promised that an independent commission will examine article 24 with a view to rewriting it. Zecler, who was held for 48 hours, said without the film “I would be in jail now”.
A protest against the law in central Paris on Saturday escalated into violence with vehicles and brewery set on fire, banks, shops and offices vandalized and cobblestones and fireworks targeting security forces responding with tear gas and riot tactics.
Among the injured was Syrian photojournalist Ameer Alhalbi, 24, who worked for Agence France-Presse (AFP) and was unable to make it to hospital for several hours. Alhalbi said it reminded him of being in the Syrian civil war. “It was Aleppo that came back to me,” he said.
AFP’s director of global news, Phil Chetwynd, has asked police to investigate the incident. “We are shocked at the injuries sustained by our colleague Ameer Alhalbi and condemn the unprovoked violence,” said Chetwynd.
Police reported that 81 people had been arrested. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said 98 police officers were injured. “Those behind the violence will be prosecuted,” Darmanin said.
The attack on Zecler was the third incident involving alleged police violence filmed last week. During the dismantling of a makeshift migrant camp in central Paris last Monday, an officer was caught on camera deliberately tripping over a fleeing migrant and another accused of targeting a French journalist on three occasions. The police’s own disciplinary unit is investigating these incidents.
A critical report on the arrest of a young black man in 2017 who suffered lifelong injuries after he was allegedly sodomized with a police baton was also released last week. Le Monde described the report on Theodore Luhaka’s arrest as a “relentless demonstration of a series of police failures”. The police officers involved avoided taking disciplinary action but could now face a criminal trial.
In September, a French journalist who infiltrated a Paris police station described a culture of racism and violence in which police officers acted with impunity.