France Calls Kidnapping Death an Anti-Semitic Crime
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. France has been shocked by a brutal crime in Paris. A gang kidnapped and tortured a 23-year-old Jewish man before leaving him to die by a roadside. Evidence that the kidnappers in part had anti-Semitic motives has drawn the attention of French political leaders. Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:
The annual dinner hosted by the National French Jewish Council known as the KREF is usually a star studded affair featuring the who's who of French politics, business, and television. This year's dinner held on Monday should have been no exception. Anti-Semitic incidents in France are down 50 percent compared to last year and relations between the French and Israeli governments are relatively good.
But the gruesome murder of the Jewish cell phone salesman Ilan Halimi last week changed the tenor of the evening. The usual speeches were dropped and French Prime Minister Dominic de Villepin was asked point-blank if Halimi was killed because he was a Jew.
Prime Minister DOMINIC DE VILLEPIN (France): (Speaking foreign language)
We owe the truth to Ilan's family, Villepin responded. We owe the truth to you and we owe the truth to the French people. The prime minister promised to get to the bottom of the gruesome crime. On February 13, Halimi was found bound and naked by the roadside with burns and torture marks covering 90 percent of his body. He died on the way to the hospital. Halimi disappeared January 20th. For three weeks police worked alongside his family as an unknown group sent ransom notes via internet and stolen cell phones. Francois Jespar (ph) is head of the investigation.
Mr. FRANCOIS JESPAR (French police): (Through translator) In the beginning they asked for 400,000 euros, then they came down and then went back up again. They demanded certain conditions, and once we met these, they refused and set others. We never managed to finalize a meeting with them.
BEARDSLEY: But each day last week, more shocking details of the crime unfolded as the thirteen youths detained by police began to talk. The gang, who called themselves the Barbarians, had tried to us an attractive woman to lure a number of victims into their trap before they succeeded with Halimi. He was held and tortured for three weeks in a high-rise public housing complex on the outskirts of Paris. The gang's ringleader, who came from the Ivory Coast and called himself the Brain of the Barbarians, managed to flee back to West Africa before he could be arrested.
When the family told the kidnappers they couldn't raise the money for the ransom, police sources said they were told to go get the money from the Synagogue. One suspect told police he had burned Halimi's face with his cigarette because he was Jewish. The investigating judge soon added anti- Semitism and religious hatred to the list of charges. Reporter Mark Siche (ph) is following the case for Paris Match Magazine.
Mr. MARK SICHE (Reporter): (Through translator) I think everyone was hoping that it was just gangsters who picked up someone because he looked rich. But it's more serious then that, because it's ridiculous to kidnap a cell phone salesman on the Boulevard Voltaire. They attacked people who were Jewish because in their minds this meant that they were rich. That's the pure definition of anti-Semitism.
BEARDSLEY: Many of the 500 people who showed up for Halimi's funeral at a Jewish cemetery last week were in an angry mood. Halimi's mother told RTL Radio that her son was lynched alive, burned and cut just because he was Jewish. Initially, police thought the motive for the crime was extortion. Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy told Parliament yesterday that authorities now accept it had anti-Semitic aspects. Speaking at Monday's dinner, KREF President Jose Cukerman (ph) said the Jewish community suspected that all along.
Mr. JOSE CUKERMAN (National French Jewish Council): (Through translator) This young man was tortured for 23 days and that's difficult to explain using only sordid criminal reasons.
BEARDSLEY: French police are now in the Ivory Coast looking for the gang's leader and demonstrations against anti-Semitism are planned for Paris this weekend. The area where Halimi was held was one of the districts that saw rioting by youths of immigrant origin last November. Many are wondering if the fear and intimidation found in those bleak housing projects explains why a man could be held and tortured for three weeks without anyone reporting it.
For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley, in Paris.
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