Police go on trial in case that set off weeks of rioting in France

Two French police go on trial in deaths of two teens. Case sparked riots in 2005

Two French police went on trial Monday, accused of failing to help two youths police were chasing who were electrocuted after hiding in a power station.

The 2005 deaths of Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traoré, 15, youths from one of Paris' troubled suburban housing projects, set off some of the worst rioting across France in more than 40 years.

A state of emergency was declared as more than 9,000 vehicles were burned and dozens of public buildings and businesses set ablaze in nearly three weeks of civil unrest that saw nightly battles between youths and police. Around 3,000 people were arrested and a traumatized France was left asking how its society had become so polarized into haves and have-nots.

On Monday, after a decade of legal wrangling, officer Sébastien Gaillemin, 41, and receptionist Stéphanie Klein, 38, appeared in court accused of the French offense of "failing to assist a person in danger."

The case against them centers on whether they knew the boys had entered the electricity station where their lives were in peril. On Monday, the court heard that one of the officers remarked to his superior, "If they've gone inside, I won't give much for their chances."

Lawyers for the boys' families want to know why the police failed to alert the national electricity company EDF as soon as it became clear the boys had taken refuge in the power substation.

Benna, of North African descent, and Traoré, whose family came from Mali, were walking home after a soccer match in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois with friends during a school vacation in October 2005 when they spotted a police van approaching. They ran, even though an investigation found they had committed no crime. Seeing them run, the police gave chase, figuring that if the youths were running they must have been up to no good.

Zyed and Bouna were electrocuted as they hid in a high-voltage transformer. A third boy Muhittin Altun, 17, suffered severe burns.

After the boys died, an investigating magistrate recommended the police should stand trial, but the public prosecutor appealed the decision and the case was dropped. Relatives then appealed to a higher court and won.

Jean-Pierre Mignard, one of the lawyers for the boys' families, told a press conference before the trial that "certain people never wanted the case tried."

The victims' relatives had hoped that the deaths would provoke change in France's high-rise suburban housing projects, known as banlieue, where poverty, unemployment and discrimination are rife, and relations between the police and local population strained.

The January attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in which 17 people were killed by three Islamic terrorists from the country's immigrant neighborhoods suggested, however, that disaffection in the grim projects remains worryingly high.

Gaillemin, who was at the scene on the night the boys died, and Klein, the police receptionist who took the call reporting the incident, face up to five years in prison and a fine of slightly more than $100,000 each if convicted. The trial, being held in the western city of Rennes, is expected to last two weeks.

Willsher is a special correspondent

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