Death in custody in France highlights police abuse accusations

A young man of Algerian origin died in unclear circumstances in France last week, following a night in police custody. The death comes three months after the publication of an Amnesty International report detailing human rights violations committed by French police officers – frequently against ethnic minorities.

According to media reports, 21-year-old Mohamed Benmouna, who had been arrested on extortion charges, died on 8 July. Police said he had attempted to hang himself in his cell and fell into a coma. He died in hospital.

Three nights of rioting and arson by youths in protest at Benmouna’s death, took place in the small southern French town of Firminy, where Benmouna worked as a supermarket cashier. Police are reported to have fired teargas and plastic bullets.

Benmouna’s family filed a lawsuit to establish the circumstances of his death and whether alleged police ill-treatment was covered up.

According to local state prosecutor, Jacques Pin, an autopsy confirmed that Benmouna died of suffocation and that his body showed no signs of violence. A second autopsy confirmed his death by suffocation.

Mr Pin also said that there was no video recording of Benmouna’s period in custody, as the camera in his cell was apparently not working. The internal police inspectorate has opened an investigation.

Published on 2 April, Amnesty International’s report Public outrage: Police officers above the law in France, revealed how allegations of unlawful killings, beatings, racial abuse and excessive use of force by France’s police officers are rarely investigated effectively.

The report showed how procedures for investigating complaints against the police in France fail to meet standards required by international law. Individuals who complain of police ill-treatment increasingly often find themselves charged with the criminal offences of insulting or assaulting a police officer. Amnesty International’s research showed that the vast majority of complaints come from French citizens from ethnic minorities or foreign nationals.

One of the cases detailed in Amnesty International’s report was that of Abou Bakari Tandia. An irregular migrant of Malian origin, he fell into a coma in a cell in the police station in Courbevoie, Paris in December 2004, after being taken in for an identity check.  He died shortly afterwards without ever regaining consciousness.  The autopsy report stated his death was the result of multiple organ failure, but did not indicate how this was caused.

In March 2005 the public prosecutor closed the investigation into his death without further action, having found “no evidence to support a prosecution”.

In April that year, Abou Bakari Tandia’s family made a civil party complaint of “torture and ill-treatment resulting in death”, and the case was reopened. 

Around this time Abou Bakari Tandia’s family was informed that the CCTV camera in his cell was not working on the night of his arrest because a detainee had pulled out its cables.  It was later proven that this was not true.

More than five years on, the cause of Abou Bakari Tandia’s death has still not been established.

Amnesty International called on the French authorities to take steps to reform the current system of investigating allegations of human rights violations by law enforcement officials, and create an independent police complaints commission with adequate powers and resources to conduct thorough and effective investigations.

“Whatever the cause of Mohamed Benmouna’s death turns out to be, incidents like this clearly demonstrate the need for thorough, independent and impartial investigations”, said David Diaz-Jogeix, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Programme. “Such investigations are essential to eradicate impunity for serious human rights violations which may be committed by police officers, and to clear all suspicion when such accusations are misplaced.”