A police officer who brutalized a 22-year-old Black man with an expandable baton during an arrest seven years ago was convicted by a French court on Friday of “intentional violence” in one of the country’s highest-profile cases of police abuse.
The young man, Théo Luhaka, sustained a four-inch tear to his rectum after the police subdued him during an identity check while he was cutting through a known drug-dealing zone in his housing project in a suburb northeast of Paris.
Two other officers who assisted in the arrest were also found guilty at the court in Bobigny, a suburb northeast of Paris, in a decision that was, however, unlikely to fully satisfy either police unions or anti-police brutality activists.
The officer who wielded the baton was sentenced to a one-year suspended prison sentence, meaning he will serve time only if he commits a new crime within a given time frame and a court then orders the full sentence to be served. The two other officers were sentenced to three-month suspended sentences. The sentences were less than what prosecutors had requested.
They had all pleaded not guilty, stating that Mr. Luhaka had been violently resisting arrest and they were acting in self-defense, doing their jobs in hostile terrain and under stressful conditions and that the baton thrust had been aimed at the upper thigh and was a technique learned at the police academy.
The verdict, delivered rapidly after over nine hours of deliberation, capped a trial that came at a time when the issue of race in France, and the policing of Black and Arab men in the country’s impoverished suburbs, remains particularly sensitive.
“The message that was passed is that we are not human beings. We are considered lesser beings,” said Issa Diara, an activist, as he left the court in a crowd that was chanting for firm prison sentences against police and holding up posters with Mr Luhaka’s face on it.
Violent protests erupted across the country last summer after the police fatally shot Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old French citizen of Algerian and Moroccan descent during a morning traffic stop. Mr. Merzouk had been driving a car without a license and had sped off after the police tried to stop him.
But long before then, the case of Mr. Luhaka, who had no criminal record, had been held up as a potent symbol of perceived racial discrimination by the police against men in minority communities, and the obstinate refusal of the authorities to address it over decades.
In the February 2017 incident, three officers wrestled Mr. Luhaka to the ground, hit him repeatedly and sprayed tear gas on his face. The violent encounter left him incontinent after two operations.
He told the court the incident had robbed him of his life and that he now spends his days depressed and cloistered to his room.
Similar to last summer’s demonstrations over Mr. Merzouk’s killing, the police attack on Mr. Luhaka ignited riotous protests over days, though they were mostly confined to the suburb of Aulnay-sur-Bois, where Mr. Luhaka continues to live.
At the time of his arrest, there was a sense that the case of Mr. Luhaka might actually prove a turning point for France, causing a change in the relationship between the country’s centralized police force and its minority populations. President François Hollande visited Mr. Luhaka in the hospital and praised him for “exemplary conduct.”
Emmanuel Macron, at the time a presidential candidate in an election he would win months later, pledged to transform the police system into one more tailored to neighborhoods, so that officers could recognize local residents and “rebuild trust.”
Instead, seven years later, there are numerous signs that things have gotten worse.
A 2017 investigation by the country’s civil liberties ombudsman found that “young men perceived to be Black or Arab” were 20 times as likely to be subjected to police identity checks than the rest of the population.
French courts have faulted the government twice for discriminatory police checks. Last fall, France’s highest administrative court ruled that the police often commit racial profiling in these stops, but deemed it was not within its jurisdiction to force new rules to end the practice.
The federal authorities have long rebutted accusations of systemic racism within the police force, calling them “totally unfounded” last year in response to criticism from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. One of the French state’s founding ideals is that all citizens share the same universal rights and are treated equally, regardless of religion or race.
In the country’s centralized police system, it is rare for a police officer to be criminally charged for excessive use of force, even when lethal, during an arrest — an issue that has been raised by international human rights groups for decades. In the few cases sent to criminal courts, often many years later, convictions are infrequent and sentences considered mainly nominal.
Fabien Goa, an Amnesty International researcher based in Marseille, cited a 2005 report by his organization that described “a climate of effective impunity for law enforcement officials” in France and said little has changed since then.
“That kind of condemnation should trigger a serious political mobilization to ensure that the rule of law is respected,” he said. “And if you look from 2005 to now, I think you can say that the seriousness of the situation has not been met with political will.”
The three officers who were sentenced for the arrest of Mr. Luhaka faced no internal disciplinary sanctions and have continued to work.
The enduring sense of mistrust and anger of police over violent interactions with citizens of minority backgrounds, including the attack on Mr. Luhaka, exploded back into public view last summer after the shooting of Mr. Merzouk.
Initial reports of the shooting in the French news media, citing what were described as anonymous police sources, said the teenager had driven into the two officers on the scene. But a bystander’s video of the shooting that went viral on social media showed the opposite: the officer who fired the shot was not in any immediate danger, and was at the side of the car as it was pulling away.
Over the ensuing days, young men — some as young as 12 years old — caused havoc across the country, burning cars, setting fire to buildings, vandalizing police stations and looting businesses.
Thousands were arrested and convicted in hasty trials. The French Insurers Federation claimed 730 million euros, or $794 million, in damages. A preliminary government report released later found that much of the looting and destruction was opportunistic.
In response to the shooting, two online fund-raisers were launched — one for the mother of the teenager, who had raised him on her own, and the other for the wife of the police officer who was charged with voluntary homicide.
The two made for an unofficial barometer of sentiment in the country. The campaign for Mr. Merzouk’s mother raised 490,000 euros, more than a $500,000, but less than one third of the 1.6 million euros raised for the police officer’s wife.