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French officers get suspended jail terms in police brutality trial over baton attack on black man

Theo Luhaka said the incident had destroyed his dream of becoming a professional footballer
Theo Luhaka said the incident had destroyed his dream of becoming a professional footballer - THOMAS SAMSON/AFP

Three French police officers were handed suspended jail sentences for using excessive force during the 2017 arrest of a young black man, in a rare, high-profile police brutality case.

The verdict sparked protests outside the courtroom calling for police officers to serve time in prison.

Theo Luhaka, 29, was left disabled after suffering severe anal injuries from a police baton, as well as wounds to his head and face, during a stop-and-search in the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois in 2017.

Marc-Antoine Castelain, 34, who was found guilty of the truncheon blow that left Mr Luhaka permanently injured, received a 12-month suspended prison sentence.

His colleagues Jeremie Dulin, 42, and Tony Hochart, 31, received three-month suspended terms at the end of the trial that started Jan 9.

Mr Luhaka’s lawyer, Antoine Vey, said the decision is a “victory” that confirms that “Theo was a victim and nothing justifies that he was beaten.” Beforehand, Mr Luhaka said he would be happy with any verdict that wasn’t a plain acquittal.

However, protesters in the courthouse shouted slogans calling for police to serve prison time. “It is a masquerade to have a suspended sentence for mutilating Theo for life,” said one of the protesters, Samia El Khalfaoui, whose brother Souheil was killed by a police officer in 2021.

Mr Luhaka initially accused Castelain of raping him with a baton – an accusation the officer denied, saying he had aimed his baton at Mr Luhaka’s legs.

The blow ripped the muscle surrounding Mr Luhaka’s anus, leaving a ten-centimetre-deep wound.

Prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to support the rape charge. “I felt like I was raped,” Mr Luhaka told the court on Monday.

The IPGN police watchdog concluded before the trial that there had been a “disproportionate use of force” and that when the police struck Mr Luhaka, he was “not attacking the physical integrity of the police officers”.

Castelain had argued his baton blow was “legitimate” and had been “taught at the police academy”.

In the end, the court rejected the charge of “deliberate violence resulting in permanent mutilation or infirmity”.

Feel like the ‘living dead’

Mr Luhaka said he once dreamt of being a “great footballer”, but now suffered from incontinence and felt like the “living dead” since the arrest, spending most of his time in his room watching US detective series “Monk” on repeat.

He has become a symbol of police brutality that officers are accused of using in the “banlieues” – the high-rise housing estates that ring the capital and other French cities.

The fatal police shooting in 2023 of a teenager who refused to stop his car for a check caused riots and widespread looting, prompting various public figures, including French football international Kylian Mbappe to speak out. “I have France ache,” wrote the star.

Most cases against police officers for voluntary violence are dismissed before reaching trial in France, and in 2021 less than 15 per cent of guilty judgements resulted in jail time served, official data shows.

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