The Murder of Ilan Halimi
by NIDRA POLLER
PARIS--Two weeks ago a 23-year-old man initially identified as "Ilan" was found by a passerby stumbling in a field near the railroad tracks in the Essonne region south of Paris. Handcuffed, naked, with four-fifths of his body covered with bruises, stab wounds and serious burns, Ilan died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Soon after, police provided more details. The victim had been kidnapped Jan. 20 and held for 24 days by a gang from the banlieues, the poor suburban projects that ring the French capital, who eluded capture while repeatedly contacting Ilan's family with ransom demands. The police suspect the group was involved in other kidnapping attempts in the past two months that used young women as bait. Several of the targeted men worked, as Ilan did, in the small cell phone shops along Boulevard Voltaire in the mixed 11th arrondissement of Paris. In another case, a suspicious father replaced his son for a meeting with a girl who claimed to be a singer, and fell into the hands of masked men who tried to capture him but ran away when someone called the police.
Throughout Ilan's disappearance, the police handled his case as a straightforward kidnap for ransom. The discovery of his body, bearing signs of barbaric torture over an extended period of time, raised serious doubts about this hypothesis. Later, a policeman admitted to the press that he and his colleagues were baffled by the gang's erratic behavior. Ransom demands went up to 400,000 euros, dropped to 100,000 euros one day, 5,000 euros another. The kidnappers called off several pickup arrangements, acting like amateurs, but were highly sophisticated in using untraceable emails and cell phones.
Yet one detail was consistently played down by the investigators and missing from the early media reporting on the killing. The victim, whose full name is Ilan Halimi, was Jewish. Most of the men targeted in other kidnapping attempts were Jewish. Most members of the gang who allegedly carried out the crime are Muslims, whose families come from the Maghreb or sub-Saharan Africa and live in the very sort of neighborhoods that went up in flames during three weeks of nationwide rioting last fall.
Jewish community leaders like Roger Cukierman, president of the Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France, an umbrella group for the country's 600,000 Jews, cautioned against hasty conclusions and unreasonable panic. But French Jews have become sensitive to a well-documented rise in violent Muslim anti-Semitism over the past five years and saw anti-Semitism as the missing link in this senseless crime. After all, Ilan's family is simple and modest. Ruth Halimi, who is divorced from Ilan's father, works as a receptionist. Why else, people are asking, would Ilan be tortured so cruelly for so long? No other motive, aside from sheer hatred, is apparent.
After Ilan was found on Feb. 13, the pieces started to fall into place quickly. When the police put out a sketch of a blond woman who had tried to bait other young men in similar circumstances as Ilan Halimi's, Audrey Lorleach turned herself in. She led police to a housing project in Bagneux, a suburb in Hauts-de-Seine. Fifteen suspects in the Halimi murder, who call their gang the "Barbarians," were brought into custody. Youssouf Fofana, who refers to himself (in English) as the "Brain of the Barbarians," is the apparent ringleader. He is on the run and, investigators suspect, hiding in northern Ivory Coast, the birthplace of his parents. The girl who entrapped Ilan Halimi, who was also on the run, may be among the three people arrested in Aix-en-Provence this past week.
Ilan was held prisoner and abused in an apartment and later a utility room in the cellar in one of the project buildings. Both were lent to the gang by the concierge, who is also now in custody. Some in the gang were known delinquents. Mr. Fofana, who is 26, had served time for armed robbery. But another member was in on-the-job training in the IT service of a French TV station.
In initial statements to the press, Public Prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin and various police officials stuck to their hypothesis that money was the motive for the crime, not anti-Semitism. They noted that Ilan Halimi had been tortured as if the gang were following "a known scenario." Photos of Ilan, naked, with a sack on his head and a gun pointed at his temple were emailed to family members suggesting, according to the police, "scenes of torture at Abu Ghraib." As it turns out, the beheading of Daniel Pearl or Iraqi snuff films are the better comparison. An anonymous police detective quoted in this past Monday's edition of Liberation said: "It's simply that, for those criminals, Jew equals money."
Later that same day, investigating magistrate Corinne Goetzmann detained seven of the suspects on charges of kidnapping, sequestration, torture, acts of barbarism and premeditated murder in an organized gang. They will also be charged with targeting the victim on the basis of his religion, French for hate crime, which carries a stiffer penalty. Justice Minister Pascal Clement explained that the charge of anti-Semitism was based on the fact that one of the suspects had declared to the judge that they picked a Jew because Jews are supposed to be rich. But, according to reports in the French press, some of the suspects in police custody said that they tortured Ilan with particular cruelty simply because he was Jewish.
No longer able to deny or play down the racial motive, the investigation is entering a new phase. One of the most troubling aspects of this affair is the probable involvement of relatives and neighbors, beyond the immediate circle of the gang, who were told about the Jewish hostage and dropped in to participate in the torture.
Ilan's uncle Rafi Halimi told reporters that the gang phoned the family on several occasions and made them listen to the recitation of verses from the Koran, while Ilan's tortured screams could be heard in the background. The family has publicly criticized the police for deliberately ignoring the explicit anti-Semitic motives, which were repeatedly expressed and should have dictated an entirely different approach to the case from the start. Police searches have now revealed the presence of Islamist literature in the home of at least one of the gang members.
The highest echelons of the French government are now preoccupied with the murder of Ilan Halimi. Paris is well aware that the case threatens France's international reputation, but far more than that is at stake. Once again, as in the suburban riots of 2005, the country is forced to come face to face with the criminalized, alienated and racist Muslim youth and their adult enablers in its midst.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin declared, in a long speech delivered at the annual dinner of the CRIF, that this heinous crime was anti-Semitic, and that anti-Semitism is not acceptable in France. He promised that the perpetrators would be captured and punished. Two French policemen were sent to the Ivory Coast with an international warrant to arrest Mr. Fofana who flew there on a one-way ticket on Feb. 15, the day that his photo appeared in Le Figaro. A delegation of the CRIF and members of the Halimi family this past Tuesday met with Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
The murder of Ilan Halimi invites comparison with the November 2003 killing of a Jewish disc jockey, Sebastien Selam. His Muslim neighbor, Adel, slit his throat, nearly decapitating him, and gouged out his eyes with a carving fork in his building's underground parking garage. Adel came upstairs with bloodied hands and told his mother, "I killed my Jew, I will go to paradise." In the two years before his murder, the Selam family was repeatedly harassed for being Jewish. The Selam case has not been opened by the magistrate. The murderer, who admits his guilt, was placed in a psychiatric hospital, and may be released soon.
The initial response to the kidnapping of Ilan Halimi suggested a comparably selective ignorance. But many things have changed in French society in the past two years. Then, faced with the new tide of anti-Semitism, the Jewish community was left alone with its distress and at times even accused of being justifiably targeted because of its support for Israel. Today the government has apparently decided that the barbarous hatred unleashed against one Jewish man is a threat to all of France.
Timeline of the crime
According to press reports based on information from French criminal investigation authorities, as of 25 February 2006 the crime is believed to have happened as follows:
On 21 January, Halimi, aged 23, was lured by an attractive 17-year-old French-Iranian girl to an apartment block in the Parisian banlieues (suburbs, which are often associated with the poor).
There Halimi was overwhelmed by a youth gang and kept prisoner for twenty-four days. During that time, his kidnappers tortured him by stabbing him with knives, burning his face and body with cigarattes and beating him in order to try to extract a ransom of initially EUR 450,000 from his family. As the days wore on, his captors turned increasingly cruel, stripping off his clothes and beating, scratching and cutting him. A burning cigarette was pressed into his forehead. His kidnappers finally poured flammable liquid on him and set him on fire. Reportedly, neighbors came by to watch and to even participate in the torture but no one called the authorities.
On 13 February, Halimi was found naked, tied and handcuffed to a tree near a railroad track in the Parisian suburbs, with burns from acid and flammable liquid covering 80% of his body (possibly to destroy evidence of his captors' DNA), with multiple stab wounds, as well as with one severed ear and toe. On the way to the hospital, he died from his wounds.
In the subsequent days, French police arrested 21 persons in connection with the crime, including the woman used as bait. The alleged leader of the gang, Youssouf Fofana, fled to his parents' homeland of Ivory Coast, where he was arrested on 23 February. Fofana was extradited back to France on 4 March 2006.
Other sources from the net
Torture and Death of Jew Deepen Fears in France
By Craig S. Smith
BAGNEUX, France, March 3
Two strips of red-and-white police tape bar the entrance to the low-ceilinged pump room where a young Jewish man, Ilan Halimi, spent the last weeks of his life, tormented and tortured by his captors and eventually splashed with acid in an attempt to erase any traces of their DNA.
The floor of the concrete room, in the cellar of 4, rue Serge-Prokofiev, is bare except for a few packets of rat poison, a slowly drying wet mark and a dozen small circles drawn and numbered in white chalk, presumably marking the spots where the police retrieved evidence of Mr. Halimi's ordeal.
Mr. Halimi, 23, died Feb. 13, shortly after he was found near a train station 15 miles away by passers-by, after crawling out of the wooded area where he was dumped. He was naked and bleeding from at least four stab wounds to his throat, his hands bound and adhesive tape covering his mouth and eyes. According to the initial autopsy report, burns, apparently from the acid, covered 60 percent of his body.
"I knew they had someone down there," said a young French-Arab man, loitering in the doorway of a building adjacent to the one where Mr. Halimi was held. He claimed to live upstairs from the makeshift dungeon but would not give his name or say whether he knew then that the man was a Jew. "I didn't know they were torturing him," he said. "Otherwise, I would have called the police."But it is clear that plenty of people did know, both that Mr. Halimi was being tortured and that he was Jewish. The police, according to lawyers with access to the investigation files, think at least 20 people participated in his abduction and the subsequent, amateurish negotiations for ransom. His captors told his family that if they did not have the money, they should "go and get it from your synagogue," and later contacted a rabbi, telling him, "We have a Jew."
The horrifying death has stunned France, which has Europe's largest Muslim and largest Jewish populations. Last weekend, tens of thousands of people marched against racism and anti-Semitism in Paris, joined by the interior minister, Nicholas Sarkozy, and smaller marches took place in several other French cities, including Marseille.In the wake of the riots that broke out in the immigrant-heavy Paris suburbs last fall, the case seems to embody the social problems of immigration, race and class that France has been facing with so much uncertainty. The emerging details raise deep fears of virulent anti-Semitism within the hardening underclass, and point to the decaying social fabric in which that underclass lives.
Those that the police say kidnapped and killed Mr. Halimi called themselves the Barbarians, and included people of different backgrounds: the children of blacks from sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, of Arabs from North Africa, of at least one Persian from Iran, and of whites from Portugal and France.The gang's leader was a tall, charismatic young man named Youssouf Fofana, 25, one of five children born in Paris to at least nominally Muslim immigrants from Ivory Coast. When he was a teenager, the family moved to the bleak neighborhood of 12-story concrete apartment blocks where Mr. Halimi was held.Trouble started early. He studied plumbing at a local vocational school but by the age of 16 had already begun a series of run-ins with the police, eventually racking up 13 arrests for everything from theft to fencing stolen goods. In 1999, at the age of 19, he stole a car, beating the Portuguese owner who tried to intervene. He was arrested and sentenced to his only jail term, serving two years in prisons in Nanterre and Fleury-Mérogis, neither far from Paris.He returned to his mother's apartment and used his prison credentials to assume the role of senior tough among younger, idle men and women, people in the neighborhood say. Lawyers familiar with the case suggest that this is when the seeds of the Barbarians were sown.By 2004, the police say, he tried extortion, aiming at prominent French Jews. When that failed, the gang apparently turned to kidnapping, using young women as bait.The Barbarians are thought to have been behind six attempted abductions, four of Jewish men, before succeeding with Mr. Halimi.In a case in early January, a woman tried repeatedly to get a Jewish music producer to meet her on the outskirts of Paris, finally managing instead to persuade his father to come to a suburban parking lot, on the pretext that she had music CD's that belonged to his son. Several men met the father instead, beating him senseless when he resisted their attempt to force him into their car.
Mike Akiba worked with Mr. Halimi at Voltaire Phone in Paris, one of a dozen tiny Jewish-owned cellular telephone shops along Boulevard Voltaire in the 11th Arrondissement. He said Mr. Halimi was alone in the store when a 17-year-old French-Iranian girl came in and flirted with him. Mr. Akiba said she might have thought Mr. Halimi, a handsome man with piercing brown eyes, was the owner.Mr. Halimi told Mr. Akiba about her the next day and said he had agreed to meet her that Friday night near Porte d'Orleans, a neighborhood on Paris's southern edge. Mr. Akiba last saw him about 10:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 20, as he drove from Boulevard Voltaire in his Champagne-colored Renault Twingo.Mr. Halimi apparently met the woman as planned, then drove her to Sceaux, a suburb near Bagneux, where his captors must have grabbed him. His car was later found abandoned in a parking lot there.Mr. Akiba said the investigating police officers discovered the gang had tried the same tactic on several men in the other phone shops.
Mr. Halimi was taken to the Pierre-Plate housing project in Bagneux, and initially held in an empty third-floor apartment at 1, rue Serge-Prokofiev, with the help of the building's superintendent, according to the lawyers who have seen the investigative files. The gang covered his eyes and mouth with tape, leaving only a hole for a straw.The Halimi family's first contact with the kidnappers was the night of Saturday, Jan. 21, when a gang member called Mr. Halimi's girlfriend and instructed her to log on to a Hotmail e-mail account. That began a series of agonizingly disjointed communications from Mr. Halimi's abductors that included hundreds of phone calls and e-mail messages, and ransom demands that started at $500,000 and dropped to $5,000, said the family's lawyer, Francis Szpiner.
After a few days, the gang moved their captive to the concrete basement room beneath a section of the building a few doors down. They shaved his head and sliced his cheek with a knife, photographed him with blood running down his face, and e-mailed the picture to his family.As the days wore on, his captors turned increasingly cruel, stripping off his clothes and beating, scratching and cutting him. A burning cigarette was pressed into his forehead.The family was instructed to send a ransom to Ivory Coast, via Western Union, and Mr. Fofana traveled to that country at least once in early February. According to reports after his eventual arrest, it was after the ransom failed to arrive that the torture of Mr. Halimi began in earnest.The police did not yet know the identities of the gang members but were close on their heels. Around Feb. 10, Mr. Fofana briefly visited an Internet cafe on the Rue de la Fidélité in the 10th Arrondissement, wearing a cap and a scarf that covered his mouth and nose. "I don't even think he took his gloves off," the manager said Friday. Just 15 minutes later, he said, police officers arrived looking for a black man, a computer-generated sketch in hand. They lifted fingerprints from the keyboard Mr. Fofana had used and confiscated the computer's hard drive and the 5-euro note he had paid with.On the evening of Feb. 13, Mr. Halimi was found. It is not yet clear when he was stabbed or whether his captors thought he was dead when they dumped him among the trees behind the Ste.-Geneviève-des-Bois train station south of Paris.Two days later, with the case beginning to make shocking headlines, Mr. Fofana flew back to Ivory Coast and was soon moving freely about town with a girlfriend, identified by the French media as Mariam Cissé.
Meanwhile, the police had begun circulating sketches of two women who had served the gang as bait, drawn from the recollections of the men who had been approached.One was the 17-year-old French-Iranian believed to have lured Mr. Halimi to his death. The sketch of a second woman proved particularly accurate, and when it was shown on television, many people recognized her as Audrey Lorleach, 24, lawyers involved in the case say.Fearing she would be caught, Ms. Lorleach turned herself in and led the police to her boyfriend, Jérôme Tony Ribeiro, a young man of Portuguese descent. He gave the police Mr. Fofana's name.When Mr. Fofana saw his name and image in the French media the next day, he was enraged and called Mr. Halimi's father and girlfriend and various of his accomplices in France from Abidjan, threatening them all — and confirming his whereabouts to the police. He was arrested on Feb. 22. [Mr. Fofana was returned to France on Saturday after being handed over to French custody by Ivorian authorities, Agence France-Presse reported.]So far, a total of 19 people, ages 17 to 39, have been arrested in connection with Mr. Halimi's abduction and death, including the French-Iranian woman, whose first name is Yalda.The police found Islamist literature and documents supporting a Palestinian aid group in the home of at least one of the people arrested, but lawyers involved in the case dismiss Islamic extremism as a motivation, noting that many of the people involved were not Muslim. The Halimis' lawyer, Mr. Szpiner, denied French news reports that the gang had called Mr. Halimi's family and recited the Koran.Mr. Fofana has admitted his involvement. In an interview videotaped by a local journalist at the police station in Abidjan and broadcast on French television, a smiling, relaxed Mr. Fofana denied that he killed Mr. Halimi and dismissed the anti-Semitic aspect of the abduction."It was done for financial ends," he said on the tape.Standing in the doorway in Bagneux near where Mr. Halimi was held, the young French-Arab man smiled when asked about Mr. Fofana. "He was nice, everybody liked him," he said. "If the police bring him back here, the guys in the neighborhood will liberate him."