The verdict in the trial of the Gang of Barbarians, accused of the atrocious anti-Semitic murder of 23 year-old Ilan Halimi, held hostage and tortured for 24 days, was pronounced after 10 PM on Friday, at the start of the July 14th holiday weekend. Youssouf Fofana, self-named “Brain of the Barbarians,” sentenced to what the French call life in prison, will be eligible for parole in 22 years. Sentences for his accomplices ranged from 6 months suspended to 18 years. Yalda, the young lady who lured Ilan Halimi into the well-prepared death trap, received a lenient nine years; she could be released for good behavior two years from now.
The victim’s mother and sisters, who are observant Jews, were not present to hear the verdict pronounced after the beginning of the Sabbath. Their counsel, Maître Francis Szpiner, adamantly urged the Ministry of Justice to appeal the sentences, which fell short of the already modest recommendations of the Avocat Général.
Was the timing accidental? Three years of investigation, two months of hearings, and a verdict that falls when the media are glued to the Tour de France and holiday goers stuck in traffic jams? State-owned France 3 TV unashamedly admitted that the verdict was announced during Shabbat in order to avoid incidents.
Meanwhile, in the small town of Firminy, enraged Muslims rioted for three nights, torching cars and buildings after a 22 year-old arrested for extortion hung himself while in police custody.
The press began to gather in the Palais de Justice late Friday afternoon. The buzz was that the verdict would be pronounced before nightfall. By 8:15 most of the Jewish people who had hoped to attend gave up. Around 9:15, journalists were herded through several checkpoints and crowded into the cramped courtroom. Another long wait. The defendants are barely visible inside a rectangular glassed enclosure, with a row of policemen at their backs. Their lawyers, pressed up against the opening, seem to be whispering sweet nothings to their nonchalant defendants. The atmosphere is more cocktail party than courtroom. Around 10 PM the jury and judges enter.
Absolutely nothing in that courtroom corresponded to the crime that had been judged. Nothing audible, nothing visible, nothing in the procedure conveyed the meaning of the crime and the reason for the punishment. The particular pain of the Jewish community, target of endless attacks by the likes of these barbarians, was deliberately muzzled.
The presiding judge reads off the verdict like a railroad official announcing the stops on a New York to Los Angeles train…but with less emotion. From where we are seated we can hardly see the defendants, hardly hear the judge, and barely understand the verdict. She intones: “To questions 1 to 137 the answer is yes except for questions 98 and 99 considered non applicable…” She goes down the list of stair-step sentences from life in prison to acquittal (18, 15, 13, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 3, 2…). It sounds more like grades for the baccalauréat than punishment for a heinous crime.
Ideally blind justice is held to distinguish truth from falsehood and right from wrong. In this case, justice was apparently moved by the accomplices’ human interest stories. Responsibility for the horrible ordeal inflicted on Ilan Halimi was diluted in their consternation and sideswiped by their hopes and plans for the future. They said they never thought it would end this way, they aren’t anti-Semitic and didn’t even know he was Jewish, they tried to alleviate the punishments meted out by Fofana. The truth is, they worked as a team. None of that would have been possible without their loyal cooperation.
We are pushed out of the courtroom as family members move toward the enclosure. Downstairs in the main hall cameramen rush from lawyer to lawyer. Most of their footage will sleep forever in the archives. All is calm outside the courtroom. The riot policemen have left. Revelers come and go from Left Bank to Right Bank unaware of the ominous decision that has been made in the Palais de Justice.
Choosing a Jew because he is Jewish, torturing a Jew day and night for 24 days while purportedly negotiating for ransom, seeing a young man reduced to nothing, beating him, starving him, tormenting him--or knowing about it and not tipping off the police--letting the whole mess degenerate, preparing the creature to be finished off by Fofana…well, in the eyes of the court, it’s no big thing.
The accomplices were at home in their banlieue, at home as the verdict was pronounced, and it looks like they will be at home in jail. Youssouf Fofana, who shouted Allahu Akhbar at the first hearing, repeatedly insulted the victim’s family, and proudly admitted he stabbed Ilan five times, poured flammable liquid over him, and set him on fire, will have endless opportunities in prison to exercise his charismatic charm and train new barbarians.
Various Jewish organizations have called for a gathering in front of the Ministry of Justice on Monday evening. The plaintiffs cannot appeal. Their last hope lies in the new Justice Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie. Two men who played a decisive role in the kidnapping are still on the loose. In three years of investigation, the police have not been able to get their names from Fofana or his accomplices. Alliot-Marie was their boss, as Minister of the Interior, until the recent cabinet shuffle.