A death in police custody in south-east France is causing community concern.
Behind a banner proclaiming ‘police blunder, assassins’, hundreds of people, a thousand perhaps (according to the organisers), took part in a largely silent demonstration (except when marching past the police station) on Sunday 11 May in the centre of the south-eastern city of Grasse (Alpes-Maritîmes). The march was held in tribute to 22-year-old Abdelhakim Ajimi (aka Hakim) who died two days earlier, while or after being arrested in circumstances which have still not been officially ascertained.
According to the daily Nice-Matin, which published the first report on 10 May, an altercation grew out of the refusal of the young man’s bank branch (at Crédit Agricole) to allow him to withdraw money. He got angry and the police, alerted by the bank manager, intervened. According to Dominique Vian, the Alpes-Maritimes Prefect, a violent struggle ensued, wounding two police officers, one of whom was hospitalised with a collarbone fracture. In the Prefect’s press release, published only one day after the death of Hakim when his family and supporters were marching in Grasse in tribute to him, Dominique Vian defended the conduct of the officers carrying out the arrest, stating: ‘Nothing that took place would lead me to question the actions of the police.’
Michel Henry, writing in Libération on 12 May, reports that Hakim’s support committee explained that the young man was unemployed and angry at not being able to receive unemployment payments for two months. When his efforts to withdraw money were refused, he exploded in anger, prompting the bank’s director to summon the police (BAC- Brigade anti-criminalité).
According to Mr Vian’s press release, the police quickly located the young man on the Boulevard Victor-Hugo, attempted to arrest him and when he again flew into a rage, a shop window was broken, and a policeman was wounded. Then, according to the Prefect, Hakim was finally controlled and handcuffed.
Challenge to police version of events
Several witnesses, however, challenged the police report on the death, stating that it was after he was handcuffed that things got out of hand. Corroborating testimony from a secondary school student, 17-year-old Layla Picout, and a 30-year-old dog handler, Ludovic Gérard, indicates that at the very least the attitude of the three policemen to Abdelhakim Ajimi alarmed the witnesses and appeared violent and disproportionate. According to Gérard, interviewed by Dimanche Nice-Matin: ‘His face was against the ground, three policemen were on top of him. He was handcuffed under his body. Pressure was applied to his spine. I heard the young man say he could not breathe. He was purple. One of the three policemen hit him with his fists.’ Ludovic Gérard, talked about ‘the lawful beating’ on France Info radio. Speaking to Libération, he said: ‘A policeman was exerting pressure on his vertebral column with his knee. Another was stifling him with his arm. He had his handcuffed hands under his torso. He was purple and begging to breathe. He got two punches instead, two good ones. I told the policemen: “You have him under control now, what more are you looking for?”‘ Another witness, Layla Picout, who knew Hakim, recounted the same story: ‘He was defenceless, pinned to the ground, completely overturned, lying stone cold as though he was already gone. He looked all soft, like a marshmallow, when he was hauled, handcuffed, into the back of their car.’ She told Dimanche Nice-Matin that ‘one of the policemen was holding him by the throat. During the twenty minutes that I was there,’ she said, ‘he did not let go of his throat. He gripped him very tightly. That image will never leave my mind.’ When the rescue services (firefighters) arrived, she said, several witnesses were shocked that the police had not let the firefighters take him to hospital. The injured policeman was taken to hospital but Hakim was transferred to the police station. Rescue services were summoned later to the police station and attempted to resuscitate Hakim, who, according to the Prefect, had fallen ill while in the police vehicle. At 4.30pm, Abdelhakim Ajimi was declared dead.
The autopsy findings on the 22-year-old were ‘inconclusive’ except to exclude actual blows as a cause of death. Analyses of the heart and lungs of the victim and toxicological examinations showed possible signs of asphyxiation or a possible heart condition. A judicial inquiry for involuntary manslaughter was opened by the prosecutor’s office in Grasse to shed light on the causes and circumstances of Hakim’s death. The autopsy revealed ‘possible signs of asphyxiation’ and one of the policemen involved in the arrest admitted that he practised a ‘half-nelson strangulation hold’.
Echoes of previous death
This arrest technique is banned in some countries and France was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in October 2007, for a case which occurred in Toulon in November 1998, involving the death of Mohamed Saoud, a schizophrenic who had a violent crisis, striking out at his family. Three police officers were attacked or wounded in trying to control him. Finally, he was overcome by the police, his hands and ankles were handcuffed and he was placed on the floor on his belly, in a position similar to Hakim’s. One policeman applied pressure to his shoulders and kidneys, another held his feet, and the third, his head. After being held for half an hour in this position, he died of cardiac arrest following slow asphyxiation, similar to what the witnesses described had happened to Hakim. Michel Henry, writing in Libé Aix-Marseille (21 May 2008), reports that, according to the ECHR, Mohamed Saoud’s death occurred while he was held on the ground for over thirty minutes and handcuffed, struggling to breathe. During this time, the rescue services attended to the policemen. As a result of this ‘failure of the obligation of the state to positively protect the life of Mohamed Saoud’, France was ordered to pay a fine of 20,000 euros to the victim’s relatives. The ECHR ‘deplored the fact that no specific directive was issued by the French authorities with respect to this type of immobilisation technique’.
Hakim’s death raises fresh questions over whether control and restraint techniques are being properly administered. In the view of the family lawyer, Franck de Vita, ‘the indication that there are signs of asphyxiation testify to an unnatural death and hence wrongdoing of at least one of the policemen during the arrest’. Another lawyer for the young man’s family, Sylvain Pont, when asked about the new elements that have been brought out, stated: ‘I am not here to put the police or police agents on trial. However, if it is proved, in the light of evidence and the autopsy, that the police officer in question would have had the possibility of arresting this individual without endangering his life, the judges should then consider whether a reclassification from manslaughter to assault causing death without intent is timely, placing the matter within the jurisdiction of the court of appeal.’
Questions remain: Where did the death happen – during the arrest, while being transported to the police station or on arrival there? On the day of the demonstration in support of the young man’s family and neighbours, Dominique Vian provided specific details which presented the young man as a cannabis smoker, prosecuted for having driven while intoxicated, even that he had been confined on occasions to a psychiatric hospital. Why, if it was known that Hakim had been in psychiatric care, was he not taken to hospital, but driven instead to the police station? Did the police in Grasse use a controversial immobilising technique against Hakim during his arrest? Several witnesses have raised questions over the actions taken by the police who continued, according to them, to apply pressure on the back and the neck of the young man while handcuffed, face to the ground, when he clearly could not breathe.
At the demonstration on 11 May, banners proclaimed: ‘Hakim, we love you’, ‘Those who keep the peace kill our children’, ‘Police delinquency, where is the justice?’. MRAP and the League of Human Rights expressed support.
According to Marc Désert, the prosecutor for the Republic in Grasse: ‘The arrest was justified. The questioning techniques were justified. Techniques of this sort are taught for use in similar circumstances. Were they mastered? It is all a matter of balance and extent. Once the person is handcuffed, should a stranglehold be maintained until the arrival of reinforcements? That is the question that the investigation magistrate must determine.’ He added: ‘But if these techniques are judged to be dangerous, the police perhaps should review what they teach.’
So much community concern has been voiced that the public prosecutor’s office in Tunis has decided to open an investigation of its own. On 13 May 2008, the police union, Unsa-police, issued a press release, which, while justifying ‘police regulations’ called for ‘full light to be shed’ on the circumstances of the arrest. It also called for the Ministry of the Interior to reinforce security on the spot as a ‘precautionary measure’.