French police charged over black man's beating

AFP , Monday 30 Nov 2020

Rallies against the law, which mobilised tens of thousands at the weekend, ended with angry clashes in Paris on Saturday that left dozens wounded

In this Nov.21, 2020 file photo a demonstrator takes a picture of policemen during a protest against bill on police images, in Paris AP

Four French police officers were charged Monday over the beating and racial abuse of a black music producer, a case that has ramped up pressure on the government of President Emmanuel Macron to give ground on a controversial security bill.

Outrage over the assault of Michel Zecler -- exposed in video footage published last week -- has become a new rallying cause for critics who accuse the police of institutionalised racism and brutality.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin is to face questions from a parliamentary commission later Monday over the new security law, which would restrict the right of the press to publish images of on-duty police.

Rallies against the law, which mobilised tens of thousands at the weekend, ended with angry clashes in Paris on Saturday that left dozens wounded, including a Syrian photographer who has worked for AFP.

A Paris investigating magistrate early Monday charged all four officers with intentional violence by a person holding public authority. Three were also charged with fabricating their police statement on the incident.

Two of the accused -- including the most senior officer, a police brigadier aged 44 -- will remain behind bars but the other two were freed on conditional release, a judicial source told AFP, asking not to be named.

On Sunday, Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz called for three of the officers to be also charged with using racial abuse.

He said the officers had acknowledged that their use of force was unjustified, but said they had claimed they had acted in "fear" and "panic" and had denied any use of racist abuse.

The four officers had a good service record before the incident, Heitz added.

Zecler had been stopped for not wearing a mask and because of a strong smell of cannabis. But only a tiny quantity of the substance was found, he said.

- Pressure on Macron -
Commentators said the images of the beating -- first published by the Loopsider news site -- might never have been made public if the contentious Article 24 of the security legislation had been law.

The bill would criminalise publishing images of on-duty police with the intent of harming their "physical or psychological integrity." It was passed by the National Assembly this month, though it still requires approval from the Senate early next year.

For critics, the legislation is further evidence of a slide to the right by Macron, who came to power in 2017 as a centrist promising a liberal overhaul of France.

"Macron is caught in a trap," said the headline in the left-leaning Liberation daily. "After police excesses and demonstrations, the government is preferring to let the situation decay rather than withdraw Article 24."

Macron said Friday that the images of Zecler's beating "shame us" and asked the French government to come up with proposals to "fight against discrimination."

With pressure growing on the government to withdraw or at least water down the bill, Darmanin will speak to parliament's committee on legal affairs Monday evening.

"Frankly, I am not closed to anything," said Yael Braun-Pivet, a member of Macron's ruling party who chairs the committee. "We have had times where we have modified or even removed articles," she told France Inter radio.

- 'Aleppo came back to me' -
The protests in Paris saw a brasserie set alight, cars torched and stones thrown at security forces, who responded with tear gas and anti-riot tactics.

Among those hurt was an award-winning Syrian photojournalist, Ameer al-Halbi, 24, seen with a bruised face and much of his head covered in bandages in AFP photos.

Al-Halbi is a freelance photographer who has worked for Polka Magazine and AFP, which both condemned the incident in statements Sunday.

"We are shocked by the injuries suffered by our colleague Ameer al-Halbi and condemn the unprovoked violence," said Phil Chetwynd, AFP's global news director, demanding that the police investigate the incident.

Al-Halbi was unable to get to hospital for several hours, and said he was reminded of being in the Syrian civil war in his hometown.

"It was Aleppo that came back to me last night," he said.

In a tweet, Darmanin said 98 police officers had been hurt during the protests, adding: "Those behind the violence will be pursued." It remains unclear how many protesters were hurt.

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