Statewatch article: RefNo# 29878
France: Ten convictions over Vincennes detention centre fire, by Yasha Maccanico
Statewatch Bulletin; vol 20 no 1 January-March 2010
Isolating detainees’ offences while concealing context, detention regime and institutional failures.

In the introduction to the 2007 report on the Vincennes administrative detention centre (CRA), at a time when Site 2 (140 places) had reopened and had been operating at full capacity for just a month, we wrote that December’s violence and tension were intrinsic to the size of the centre and the police prefecture’s “policy of figures” [1]. The balance for 2008 was clear and the claims that we made at the end of 2007 proved to be an unfortunate prophecy. After seven months of tension and violence on an almost daily basis, and the tragic death of a detainee on 21 June, the centre burned on 22 June 2008.

Cimade, “Centres et locaux de rétention administrative. Rapport 2008”


On 17 March 2010, the 16th chamber of the Paris correctional Court convicted ten former detainees of the Vincennes detention centre (CRA, centre de rétention administrative). They were given prison terms of between eight months and three years for their role in a fire and violent incidents that broke out at the CRA on 22 June 2008. These events occurred the day after the death of Salem Souli, a Tunisian detainee. As part of the Migreurop campaign for access to migrant detention centres, representatives of the network of European and African organisations (of which Statewatch is a member) monitored the proceedings and produced reports on the hearings, which began on 25 January 2010.

The trial had been widely criticised as a foregone conclusion. Defence lawyers and their clients walked out of the proceedings after the fourth hearing and called a press conference to explain their decision to do so. Their complaints included: the failure to grant their requests for the death of Salem Souli, and the overall conditions in the centre, to be addressed at the trial; the use of inconclusive video recordings that were selected by the police; the use of evidence based almost exclusively on police statements and the speed with which the trial was scheduled to be completed. All of these factors “demeaned” the trial, said monitors from Migreurop.

The defendants were three Malians, two Moroccans, two Palestinians, a Tunisian, a Turk and an Egyptian. The sentences, which defence counsel Ms. Terrel said would be appealed, were a three year prison sentence for one of them, two and a half years for two others, two years for three defendants, one year for a further two and eight months for the last two. One of the trial’s key features was the isolation of the offences from detention conditions, such as the tense atmosphere, Mr. Souli’s death and the suppression of detainees’ protests before the fire. Witnesses claimed that police officers had struck detainees and used teargas and irritant spray. However, the lawyer for the injured officers insisted in her summing up: “It is not [conditions at] the CRAs that are on trial”.

The context

Vincennes is the largest detention centre in France. It has the capacity for twice the number of detainees allowed by the law, which sets a limit of 140 people. This was achieved by dividing the site into two centres (Site 1 and Site 2) based on the presence of two buildings. Many of the authorities, officers and services involved in running them are identical, resulting in the centres being under-staffed. In its 2007 report, Cimade (which operates to assist detainees in Vincennes) reported that conditions at the centre were “explosive”. It cited examples of violence between detainees, hunger strikes, refusals by detainees to return to their rooms, violence by police officers against detainees and by detainees against the centre’s private security officers. It stressed the negative impact of the centre’s size and its role in dehumanising detainees.

In February 2008, Cimade reported violence by police officers against detainees. There were protests in the centre in April, which involved detainees ripping up their identity documents while a demonstration by supporters was being held outside. There was a hunger strike after news that a sans-papier had committed suicide by jumping off a bridge to avoid an identity check. Tension was high in the period leading up to Souli’s death and a letter sent by Cimade to the prefecture on 16 June 2008 expressed fears that a tragedy would occur. Moreover, several fires in Vincennes had been reported during 2007 and 2008.

The death of Salem Souli on 21 June 2008 followed his request to be taken to hospital the previous day. Police officers had a nurse visit him who certified that he was well. This was the spark that set off a day of protest on 22 June 2008. Souli’s family had not been promptly informed of the death, and his son’s mother filed a complaint for “witholding information, manslaughter due to a failure to comply with security duties, and failure to provide assistance”. The cause of Souli’s death remains unclear despite an autopsy, the result of which was only partly released. His body has now been repatriated. Despite being a certified asthma sufferer, he was kept in a cell with a temperature described as “smothering” by the police report into his death. Cimade, and the Franco-Tunisian organisation Fédération des Tunisiens pour une Citoyenneté des deux Rives (FTCR), will be civil plaintiffs in the Souli case.

Instead of blaming migrant support organisations outside the centre for the fire as the Paris police prefecture and a UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, a right-wing party that currently holds power) spokesman had done, the defence stressed that the cause of the fire was the “electric situation in the centre” which “resulted from the deep atmosphere of tension that could be perceived for some months”. A report handed to the government a fortnight before the fire by the Commission nationale de contrôle des centres et locaux de rétention administrative et des zones d’attente (CRAZA), an oversight body that checks on conditions in places of detention, had warned about the “climate of tension and violence that reigns permanently in all the CRAs and especially in Vincennes, where anything would suffice to set the gunpowder alight”. The CRAZA report added that the centre’s capacity should return to a maximum of 140.

After Souli’s death, detainees demanded an explanation. Failing to receive one, they organised a silent march in the early afternoon of the following day. In Site 2, witnesses claim that the police ordered detainees to return to their rooms, spraying some of them with irritant gas. The police headed to Site 1 where the most vociferous protests and their suppression occurred. Witnesses from Site 2 claimed that they could hear shouting and smell teargas coming from Site 1. Witnesses from Site 1 said that several detainees were beaten and tear-gassed in their rooms, further increasing the tension.

A fire broke out, but witness statements disagree as to whether it started in Site 1 or Site 2. Detainees were moved to a gym in the police academy adjacent to the centre, and some described an “apocalyptic and traumatising” experience. Eighteen detainees were taken to hospital after inhaling smoke and the remainder were transferred to detention centres in Nîmes (100), Lille (54), Paris (40), Rouen (22), Palaisseau (18) and Mesnil (10). Many were released, others were heard as witnesses by magistrates and ten were charged with the offences of “destruction of goods by starting a fire” and “wilful violence against officers of a public force”. The Vincennes CRA reopened in November 2008 with a capacity of 120 places, later raised to 180.

The trial

The trial comprised eight hearings, held in Paris correctional court between 25-27 January, 1-3 and 8-9 February 2010. In addition to the fire, Migreurop observers had expected the case to focus on Souli’s death and the conditions in the months leading up to the fire at a centre that manifestly did not comply with regulations. However, the hearings focussed entirely on the detainees’ liability. Defence counsel and the accused walked out of court at the fourth hearing. Requests for important witness evidence to be heard had been rejected and they felt that the conditions required for a fair trial had not been met.

The first three hearings, from 25 to 27 January 2010, had seen the defendants’ lawyers question the court’s impartiality and ask for the committal to trial to be annulled. Between 100 and 200 people were locked out of the courtroom, which had been set up in a manner reminiscent of terrorist trials, with a barrier at the entrance, a glass cage for the only defendant who was still in remand custody and a strong police presence. The first hearing was delayed after one defendant was arrested on his way to court because he did not have valid documents on him. Another defendant recognised the presiding judge, who had ordered that he be remanded in custody five years earlier, and questioned her impartiality.

The charge sheet was then read. Four defendants were accused of wilful violence causing injuries that resulted in no more than eight days of inability to work, with the aggravating circumstances that the offences were committed in association and against people to whom public authority was entrusted. Four others were charged with wilfully destroying the Vincennes CRA building by using explosive substances, starting a fire or by any other means. The last two defendants were charged in relation to the violence and the fire. One of them was accused of ripping out a phone booth and the other of smashing detention centre windows, with the aggravating circumstances that these were public goods used for public furnishing or utility, and that the offences were committed in association.

The lawyer for MD (the defendant who recognised the judge) explained that the judge had placed MD in remand custody in 2005 and placed his pregnant wife and children under judicial supervision. She had also placed their two children (the couple now have seven) in social care for two years, until they were returned by children’s judicial authorities. His client had been traumatised by these events, which he identified as the start of the administrative problems that resulted in his detention in the CRA. He should not have been detained as the father of seven French children. This damaged his trust in the court’s impartiality.

The prosecutor argued that the two matters were unrelated, claiming that European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence, in a similar case, had “resolved the matter”. A defence lawyer argued that “appearances” were also important, calling for the judge to withdraw from the case. After this request was rejected, MD’s lawyer applied to the tribunal de grande instance (TGI) to have the judge withdrawn. There was a demonstration outside the courthouse. On 27 February the judge announced that the challenge was rejected by the TGI’s president and the defendant was fined 750 euros (the maximum applicable fine when a request to withdraw a judge is refused).

A trial loaded against the defence

Defence lawyers demanded that the committal for trial be annulled for all the defendants because it was tainted by flaws and irregularities caused by the investigating magistrate’s failure to undertake enquiries to establish or to exclude the defendants’ guilt. “Where is the fair trial in a file that has only sought to charge, which only includes statements from the police?” asked Ms. Terrel.

Some of the issues raised by the defence were the examination of the crime scene, the forensic examination of materials and their not having access to all of the video recordings from the centre but only to hand-picked extracts. Several contextual aspects had been overlooked. The case file included interception excerpts from telephone communications by a detainee in an attempt to link the revolt with the presence of NGOs and migrant support groups protesting outside the detention centre. The way in which the case was dealt with was described as “belittling” and loaded against the defendants, concealing the detention regime and the experience of those subjected to it. They were remanded in custody for long periods without appropriate reason, such as the risk of their absconding. The case was set to be heard in three half-days, whereas other matters involving similar numbers of defendants often lasted several weeks.

The defence lawyers highlighted a combination of factors that were liable to lead to a tragedy. Weeks before the fire, Tasers were used on some detainees by the police. This drew criticism from the Commission nationale de déontologie de la sécurité (CNDS, National Commission for the Professional Ethics of Security Forces) in a document dated 14 December 2009, which found that the use of Tasers could not be construed as legitimate self-defence. Cimade had repeatedly warned public bodies about the worsening situation in its annual reports and through letters to the police prefect, but no action was taken. They argued that Souli’s death should not be omitted from the proceedings, as he had asked to go to hospital on 20 June and was not given appropriate care. There was also a sense that there had been an attempt to conceal the death, as Souli was removed from the centre wearing an oxygen mask over his face although he had already died.

The handling of the videos, which were sealed after a limited in camera viewing of selected extracts which some lawyers were unable to attend, was criticised for contravening the notion that both sides should have an “equality of means” in a fair trial. The police had access to the entire recordings. A few moments of footage were used to demonstrate criminal conduct, while the period leading up to and following it, which might have had a bearing on the defendants’ conduct, were not available. Other video footage was also unavailable, such as that shot by the fire services.

There was no forensic analysis of the materials and facilities in Vincennes CRA (mattresses, construction materials, etc). One report mentioned that the roof was made of wood, but whether it complied with safety regulations for these kinds of sites is unknown. It is also unknown whether mattresses were fire-proof. This information would have helped to clarify why the fire spread so quickly and whether the administration had any liability. Also, there was no assessment of the extent of the damage, no mention of the personal histories of the defendants or the reasons they were in detention. One of the accused had been in France since the early 1990s, had seven French children and should not have been in the CRA; another was identified as an adult on the basis of X-ray scans of his wrist, despite this means of establishing age being widely recognised as unreliable.

Defence walks out as CCTV tapes shown

The prosecutor dismissed these complaints, stating that the only matters that the court was competent to resolve were how the fire had started and how it had spread. The former was the key issue, whereas the latter would be necessary to establish the damage caused once the defendants’ liability was established. Technical analyses were unnecessary at this point because there were no deaths or serious injuries as a result of the fire, meaning they could be carried out later. The fire and Mr. Souli’s death were two separate matters. Visiting the crime scene was unnecessary because photographs showed what it was like before it had been demolished and re-built. Out of respect to the defence, supplementary video footage could be shown, although large parts of it were of no use. While the police had “technically” carried out the selection of video footage, this was done under the investigating magistrate’s supervision, unlike video footage from other services which did not add any useful information. The hearing ended with the judge ordering that the seals be removed from the CRA CCTV footage, which would only be shown in the court. Requests for additional information and for the committal to be annulled would be united at the end of the proceedings, and a timetable for hearings was issued.

Hence, many complaints by defence lawyers about how the trial was framed were rejected, but the schedule for hearings was lengthened and 35 hours of CRA CCTV footage would be viewed in court. For the defence, Ms. Dutartre complained about the condensed schedule that was imposed (three half-days per week for two consecutive weeks) and the relegation of the defence counsels’ issues to the end of proceedings. The session ended with the release of the last defendant who remained in custody.

The hearing on 1 February 2010 began with defence lawyers’ complaints that the schedule was “unacceptable”, an argument that was supported by a representative from the Paris Bar. They noted the lack of dialogue about the extremely charged schedule, saying that it was a matter pertaining to the “good administration of justice”. The defence then announced its withdrawal. The 35 hours of CCTV videos footage from the CRA’s internal and external surveillance cameras were shown in the courtroom in subsequent hearings.

At the defence lawyers’ press conference, at which they explained their decision, they emphasised that they did not want a viewing of the video material in the courtroom, but rather CD-ROMs that they could work with. The footage from the two sites, and other sections of the CRA, started shortly before the fire began. It showed a relaxed environment, followed by detainees fleeing - hands covering their mouths and faces - as smoke appeared. The footage that involved the alleged commission of offences included objects being thrown and doors being taken off their hinges in site 1. In site 2, detainees are seen leaving their sections or running in the corridors with their mattresses and sheets. They gathered in a recreation area before returning to the building when the fire started and placed mattresses and sheets in a hall where they subsequently caught fire.

The Migreurop observers noted that it is unclear from the video footage who started fires and what instances of physical violence against officers occurred. They questioned whether this was also the case for the judges, who were nearer to the screen. Apart from mentions of a few defendants who were purportedly identified in the footage, the videos ran continuously without the possibility to rewind and clarify specific issues. And, of course, there were no defence lawyers to challenge the prosecutor’s claims.

Final remarks

Following the viewing of the videos, the judge read statements by two defence witnesses in their absence. The first, by Senator Jean Desessard, who visited the CRA a fortnight before the fire, said that any personal responsibility should be judged in relation to the general conditions. The incident was similar to a prison revolt, involving aggressiveness among detainees in a situation of “hardly bearable” overcrowding. The second statement was by MP Jean-Pierre Brard, who visited the CRA the day after the fire. He told the investigating magistrate that he had often visited CRAs, that fires were not an uncommon event and that the fire fighting services were often called to put out fires in their early stages.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs then spoke. One lawyer, representing six injured officers, argued that she could reply to the defence’s claims. These claims included reference to “a chronicle of a death foretold”, the detention regime, searches, slogans that mirrored street demonstrations and “unacceptable” references to the Nazi concentration camps. She insisted that conditions in the centre were very different from imprisonment, and painted an idyllic picture of PlayStations, table tennis, visits from friends and family and the use of mobile phones, with a minimal police presence and the freedom to come and go. The lawyer noted that the violence was not self-inflicted, or between prisoners, but targeted officers on 21 and 22 June, with one officer having her hair pulled, being thrown to the ground and punched and kicked. The officers who came to her rescue were spat at and had objects thrown at them. They were also obstructed from putting out the fire. The fire service had to wait for intervention teams before entering. The detainees’ march was not silent, according to officers, and some detainees started leaving their rooms with their mattresses and sheets, with demonstrators outside “stoking the fire”. She added “It is not about the CRA it is about six people”, in reference to the injured officers she represented. She added “the court must establish if the defendants are guilty of the blows they have been charged with”.

She proceeded to list the positions of the defendants, some of whom, she argued, could clearly be seen in the video footage. She said that others were either identified by officers or admitted throwing objects or wanted to stop officers from entering the centre. She argued that while there was a lot of talk about the detainees’ distress, there has been little mention of that of the officers who “play a humanitarian role”. She noted that only about 15 out of 280 detainees were agitated.

The lawyer representing the treasury’s judicial office then intervened, stating that: “I am not ashamed to represent the State”. Her point was that excesses could not be accepted and that the State had to defend its representatives, whose role is not repressive but supportive. The State demanded damages for the care and support provided to the injured officers, and reparations for repair work to the damaged buildings. The request was symbolic and it was realised that the State would not receive payment.

Finally, the prosecutor described references to concentration camps as “shameful” and a “manipulation”. He accused the defence of “deserting” the trial and of acting against the interests of justice and the defendants that they represented. He emphasised that the fire was “premeditated” and that officers had heard that some detainees wished to set the CRA on fire after Souli’s death. He said that the first window was broken in Site 1 and that some people left their rooms in Site 2 holding mattresses as officers went into Site 1. The fire started in a room in Site 2 and within a few minutes other mattresses were burning, with a fire also starting in site 1. The fire service arrived about ten minutes later. He said that detainees acted in concert in the two sites and spoke of “coordinated” acts.

The prosecutor described Souli’s death as “natural”, resulting from “asphyxia”. He said that the detainees immediately spoke of “murder” rather than a “death”. He also claimed that those intent on causing a violent situation to arise “exploited” the death, and that the simultaneous setting of several fires demonstrated premeditation. The fact that mattresses were not fire-proofed helped the fire to spread. He argued that CCTV footage showed that some detainees had been more active than others and identified the acts for which each of the defendants was charged. These ranged from punching and kicking, to setting a fire, throwing missiles or pieces of concrete at officers or preventing them from closing a door, and carrying mattresses to feed the fire. Lastly, he recognised the fact that it was a “problem that the defendants won’t be represented” and that part of the blame for the centre’s destruction and the toxic nature of the smoke lay in the fact that the mattresses were not fire-proofed.

Conclusion

The defence lawyers argued that the aim of the trial was to establish the guilt of detainees for the events that occurred at Vincennes CRA. The guilty were picked somewhat arbitrarily, using edited video footage and officers’ statements. Souli’s death and other concerns such as overcrowding were not considered in the proceedings. In fact, during the trial plans were unveiled for capacity at Mesnil-Amelot CRA to be increased from 140 to 240 places using the same expedient measures as at Vincennes: the creation of a second site to provide the impression of two separate detention centres. Cimade and other French NGOs have launched a campaign against this initiative.

Most significantly, the decontextualisation of the detainees’ actions can be seen in the use of video evidence. Footage of the revolt and fire were shown but not the protest or its suppression which played a part in subsequent events. The minor concessions ceded to the defence did not assist lawyers’ in defending their clients because the extended schedule was largely used to show video footage in a context that made it difficult to interpret or analyse the images. The substance of the lawyers’ complaints was dismissed.

Footnote

1. The “policy of figures” is an expression used to refer to the practice of arresting foreigners in order to demonstrate police forces’ “productiveness” by improving statistics through “easy” arrests.
Sources
Migreurop campaign for a right of access to the places of detention for migrants: http://www.migreurop.org/rubrique268.html

Migreurop observation of the Vincennes CRA trial: http://www.migreurop.org/article1610.html

AFP, 13.3.10.

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