A team of two policemen who had taken in 22 year-old man to question him last May in Grasse, will be called in examining magistrates on December 16th with the charge of voluntary manslaughter. They will be convened in front of the city of Grasse’s judges under the charge of Abdelhakim Ajimi’s death, who passed away on May 9th while he was transferred to Grasse police office after a rough arrest. According to a judiciary source, the final expertise report issued in late November left “no doubt” about the causes of the young man’s death : a mechanical asphyxiation caused by ribcage compression and an “arm key” performed too strongly and for too long by the policemen on the victim. “This practise is part of the “lock techniques” used by our police teams in our country”, the judge said. “The person is taken to the ground; a policeman partly kneels on his back to prevent him from moving while his teammate performs a stranglehold”. According to the judge, “the policemen may not have fully mastered those traumatising neutralization techniques”.
A first victim : Mohamed Saoud
The European Court for Human Rights condemned France for using these techniques with the October 9th 2007’s judgement, following the arrest and death of Mohamed Souad, 26. In this affair, the policemen involved in the arrest had been exculpated upon “failure to render assistance to a person in danger”; as Mohamed Souad wore a gun and shot it several times. Yet, this neutralization technique proved to present some risks of “postural asphyxiation”, and led the Europen Court for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) to request the full suspension of tis practise, which is prohibited in Switzerland and Belgium. Amnesty International also started worrying about death under arrest in various countries in Europe, while some other countries and local police services such as New York and Los Angeles police have been prompt to prohibit such practices. According to the European Court for Human Rights, “Mohamed Saoud passed away in the course of his neutralization by the police officers, while his hands and feet were cuffed. The fact that he struggled for a long time to try to free himself from the unsufferable stranglehold surely weakened his capacity to breathe and precipitated his death.” The court added: “While Mohamed Saoud was agonising, the police officers were under the care of the firemen. (Mr Saoud’s relatives) assured that his sitting up might have been enough to avoid his death. For this “dereliction of positive duty from the authorities to protect Mohamed Saoud’s life”, the French state was condemned to pay 20,000 Euros to the victim’s relatives. The Court “lamented the fact that no precise order or directive had been taken by French authorities about this kind of neutralization techniques”.
The case of Abdelakim Ajimi : Reconstituting the facts
The ACS officers (Anti-Criminality Squad) from the city of Grass found Hakim Ajimi while he was leaving with agitation the Crédit Agricol after the assault of the bank agency director. They localized him on Boulevard Victor Hugo, and asked for his name. “He told me he had no name”, claims the police caporal. “He said “don’t touch me” “according to his teammate. The team of policemen then tried to catch him but he struggled out, and the three of them fell to the ground. In the struggle, the police caporal hurt himself while trying to grab him. “I heard a creaking sound and felt an intense pain. He then kicked my nose and punched my forehead”. The policemen eventually cuffed Hakim’s hands and feet and took him to the ground. He was then neutralized and put out of action. Some police collegues then joined the first team, and some passers-by gathered around. The caporal officer then punched Hakim twice. He then sat on his back while his teammate performed a key to neutralize him : “That was actually a key, like the strangulation kind, but I insist on the fact I didn’t held him full-strength, and that i was only aimed at preventing his head from moving. I also add that his Adam’s apple didn’t suffer from any pressure”. The caporal’s teammate performed this key “for five to ten minutes, with variations in pressure according to Ajimi’s agitation”. Maybe even longer, according to some witnesses who started to protest, saying: “This is unacceptable, he’s not an animal, that’s enough, they caught him!” A policeman from the reinforcement team claimed the victim’s face had turned to purple, while a high-school student said: “When I saw his face was blue; I thought he probably wasn’t breathing anymore”. A rescue team then came up, reduced the caporal officer’s shoulder dislocation under anaesthesia, but they didn’t practise any care on the victim, who was directly taken into the police car. The youth was then “inert” according to witnesses, “his arms and legs were dangling, his feet trailed on the ground”, “looking soft like mallow”. “I do not understand why the rescue team didn’t take care of the youth”, said the high-school student’s mother.
A female police officer reported: “When he was thrown onto the back of the car, he rolled down to the floor between the front seats and the back seats. The caporal’s teammate rectified: “He slipped off it and fell down” on the chest. “He didn’t talk nor move” said the female police officer. A colleague then asked: “Sir, are you alright?” He didn’t answer. During the drive to the police station, a policeman even rested his feet on Hakim,
as room was scarce in the car. When they finally arrived at the station, a policeman noticed Hakim’s face had turned to blue. “That was not until we got to the police station that we noticed that he was unconscious”. A cardiopulmonary and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was then performed on the victim, yet unsuccessfully. According to anatomic-pathological expertise, the Tunisian man died of a mechanism of thoracic compression, which has been associated to a complete obstruction of upper airways (with his face of the victim brought to the ground): a result of the caporal’s neutralization technique of locking the victim’s back to the ground by partly kneeling on him, while his teammate performed a stranglehold. “I am very surprised by the turn of events”, claimed the caporal. According to his teammate, “we only performed the regulatory rules which, to us, couldn’t possibly be the cause of his unease”. When he threw him into the car, the caporal’s teammate didn’t notice anything unusual: “He was breathing, I’m sure about that. He did have his eyes closed; I really thought he was conscious. “I didn’t use immoderate strength”. Yet,
to Hakim’s father Boubaker Ajimi, 50 years-old, nothing can explain the police attitude: “They could just arrest him, put him behind bars, alright. But he was handcuffed and neutralized… Why did they kill him?” His lawyer, Sir Sylvain Pont, referred to “damning charges” and his colleague Sir Frank De Vita assured that it wouldn’t be “very judicious” from the examining judges to delay the conviction of the two policemen for involuntary manslaughter.
Can we draw a link with Mohamed’s death? The judicial information which
was opened on May 13th in Grasse for “involuntary manslaughter” might bring elements to answer the question. “The arrest was justified, the neutralization techniques performed were justified, and were those which were taught to be used in such circumstances”, said the city of Grasse prosecutor, Marc Désert. Are they fully mastered? It’s all about measuring and composing. Once the person is handcuffed, is it necessary to maintain a stranglehold until the reinforcement team arrives? This is the question the judges will have to answer. But if these techniques are dangerous, said the examining judge, the police might question its teachings.
By Véronique Pret