High Court, Paris (75) – The immense glass building rises 38 floors towards the sky. And, less well known, it goes three levels under the ground. The largest court in Europe, attended by almost 9,000 people every day. It is in the first and second basement levels that the dépôt (1), the jail, is hidden, the scene of most of the facts revealed by this investigation. A row of cells with white walls deprived of natural light where the defendants are locked up before and after their appearance before the judge. A total of nearly 200 police officers are responsible for monitoring the 120 cells day and night. It is in this sanitized basement, but also previously in the insalubrious basement of the former court, that some twenty police agents, on duty at night, reigned in terror for more than two years.
Systematic abuse in jail
Based on the testimony of a whistleblower, Chief Brigadier Amar Benmohamed (also a Criminal Investigation Police Officer), on numerous sources, but also thanks to several hundred internal documents (reports, emails, notes) StreetPress lifts the veil on facts of an unprecedented scale, committed at the heart of the French judicial institution: in the cells of the dépôt jail, more than a thousand people were subjected by police officers to humiliation, often racist or homophobic insults, deprivation of food or water, denial of medical care…Some of the police agents involved have also, on several occasions, taken advantage of transfers of detainees to other prisons to steal cash or small electronic devices from defendants chosen because they did not speak French.
« In total, over a little more than two years, more than a thousand detainees were mistreated. It’s probably even more », denounces Chief Brigadier Benmohamed, who is a shop steward at the Unité SGP-Police union. For Arié Alimi, lawyer for the whistleblower, « the facts denounced, of unprecedented gravity, revealing a system of crime and impunity for their perpetrators, taint the entire criminal justice system of the High Court as well as its rulings and decisions. »
For Arié Alimi, lawyer for the whistleblower, « the facts denounced, of unprecedented gravity, revealing a system of crime and impunity for their perpetrators, taint the entire criminal justice system of the High Court as well as its rulings and decisions. »
Pour Arié Alimi, avocat du lanceur d’alerte, « les faits dénoncés, d’une gravité sans précédent, entachent d’indignité toute la justice pénale du TGI ainsi que les décisions qui y sont rendues ». / Crédits : Yann Castanier
Our investigation doesn’t end there. In that basement, some policemen seem to go out of hand and are even attacking their colleagues. Testimonies and documents describe situations of sexual and moral harassment, racist insults…
In three years, all of these facts have been the subject of several written reports that StreetPress has been able to read. And at least three separate investigations have been conducted by the IGPN [NT: Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale, the internal investigation body of police forces, later referred to as IGPN]. In each case, our understanding is that the evidence reported was confirmed by a number of police agents. But to date, no sanctions have been taken and no legal action has been undertaken for these facts (2). The main defendants have even seen their careers progress and have obtained the transfers they wanted. Out of esprit de corps and fear of scandal, undoubtedly, the hierarchy of Chief Brigadier Amar Benmohamed knowingly suppressed the case. That is why he decided to open up to StreetPress : « The reason I’m speaking today is because I’ve done everything [within the police] to settle this case and it failed ».
While he could have requested anonymity, Amar Benmohamed chose to testify openly, at the risk of seeing his career shattered. « I take responsibility for everything I say, » he soberly commented in a calm voice :
« I have to do everything I can to change things. »
The Valls classes
This decision, to go to the end of this battle, he took in the night of March 11th to 12th, 2019. On that day, a police agent stationed in the basement of the Court harshly calls out an inmate who asks for a meal without pork meat :
« You’ll take what you are given. We’re fed up with the ragheads, they’re the ones who piss us off in France. »
Just a few meters away, officers sitting in their offices, with the door open, hear the racist words. « They get up to intervene », remembers Chief Brigadier Benmohamed. « But the only reaction of the superiors is to move the agent to another posting for the night. » No punishment, hardly an admonition.
This scene is the last straw. Because for over two years, he’s been pushing his direct superiors to act. To no avail. This time, he decides to reach up higher on the ladder and threatens to « go upstairs ». Understand : to inform the judges that work in the higher floors of the Court. To calm things down, his superior asks him to write a report. Chief Brigadier Benmohamed does so… And copies several levels of the hierarchy in the communication. A way, in the organization, to prevent his words from being shutdown. It has been going on for too long: this system of “mistreatment” committed by an « organized gang » has been stretching back for more than two years:
« For certain facts, one can almost talk about torture. »
The abuse began in the first half of 2017, in the former Court, located on l’Île de la Cité, inside Paris. At that time, part of the « group 1 » staff of the jail – « experienced boys and girls » – was transferred, replaced by rookies just out of the police academy. « It was the beginning of the Valls classes (so called because Manuel Valls was then Minister of the Interior and then Prime Minister) », explains Amar Benmohamed. A senior police officer confirms with StreetPress :
« They enrolled in the police forces in response to the terrorist attacks [TN: that occurred in France in 2015]. To put it simply, some are there to defend the Christian West in peril. The level of racism there is quite high. »
Racist and homophobic abuse
As soon as they settle in at the courthouse, these young recruits indulge in inappropriate behaviour, says the Chief Brigadier. And set in motion the perverted dynamic. « They call all detained defendants the ‘bastards’. » « Is there any food left for the bastards ? » or « Take that bastard back to the cell. » The word entered common parlance and everyone followed, including the brass. Except for two officers.
Dans son rapport du 12 mars 2019, le brigadier-chef détaille les insultes racistes. Elles sont nombreuses « Ferme ta gueule, sale bougnoule », « nègro », « sale race ». Tous les déférés sont également appelés « les bâtards ». / Crédits : DR
Soon after the arrival of the new recruits, Amar Benmohamed notices an increase in incidents with detainees. He then decides to take a closer look at these newcomers. What he discovers over the months is staggering. Racist insults, by the dozens. « Shut the fuck up, you dirty Arab », « nigger », « dirty race », or the most terrible ones :
« I’d throw you all into the Seine river. »« If they’d let me, I’d set fire to all these merguez [NT: North-African sausage]. »
Some nights, even, one of the policewomen reportedly uses the microphone reserved for general announcements (evacuation or escape) to wake up all the people detained in the cells by shouting :
« Come on, get up, niggers and ragheads, enough sleeping, let’s wake up. »
A police Major, who witnessed the scene, would have dismissed it as « simple hazing ». Sometimes slurs take on a homophobic twist, too. « Dirty fag », « Go fuck yourself », Amar Benmohamed lists in his calm voice. These are just a handful of examples. The litany is endless:
« It was almost daily. We [with colleagues who don’t condone the behaviour] tried to do some counting, but it’s impossible. Several hundred people were insulted at the jail. And that’s just for insults… »
Deprivation of food, water and of access to a doctor
Whenever he witnesses it, the Chief Brigadier assures us that he intervenes. For example, in March 2018, a terrorist’s girlfriend, barely major, was taken to the dépôt jail by night before being presented to a magistrate. The Chief Brigadier discovers the young girl in tears, asking for a simple glass of water that the police agents refuse to give her. He lectures one of the agents in charge and asks her to fetch the glass. The answer is :
« If it were up to me, I’d slit her throat and let her bleed to death. »
He raises his voice, she executes. But as always, when his back is turned, the abuse continues. « Several colleagues have told me, because there are also great guys and girls working there », he insists. « Because the hierarchy has done nothing », water deprivation continues until the court moves to a new location in April 2018 : the new cells are equipped with taps. On the other hand, food deprivation will be commonplace at the night jail for more than two years. In his report of the 12th March, 2019, Chief Brigadier Amar Benmohamed details the following :
« In addition to being verbally stigmatized at the time of their search, the defendants who had had the “misfortune” of giving into the verbal games of the police agents by replying to them […] were sometimes (once placed in their cells) deprived of food for several hours, or even for the entire night. »
Some officers are said to have developed the habit of spitting into lunch trays or throwing them on the floor « like you would do to dogs ». Some Muslim detainees are also made to believe that the food contains pork, so that they deprived themselves of meals.
Dans son rapport du 12 mars 2019, le brigadier-chef Amar Benmohamed détaille les privations et le non-respects des droits des déférés à de la nourriture ou à un médecin. / Crédits : DR
Another retaliatory measure explained in that report : « Moreover, when these defendants had asked to be examined by the doctor […], the police officer or officers with whom the ‘incident’ occurred lied to the defendant by saying that the doctor would come by the next morning, while at the same time the police officer wrote […] that the defendant had refused medical examination. »
Cells turned into a pressure cooker
This illegal conduct turns the dépôt jail into a pressure cooker. Sometimes literally, since, in the overcrowded and unsanitary cells of the former Île de la Cité court, the heat can be stuffy in the summer. « I discovered that in the old courtroom, police regularly cut off the ventilation system on purpose », sighs Benmohamed. « Inside, where sometimes more than 15 people were locked up, it was like a furnace. » People arrive at the jail after 24 or 48 hours – sometimes even 96 hours – in police custody, tired from interrogations and nights in police station cells. « They are dirty, they are hungry. Sometimes they have lost everything and are stressed out before they go before a magistrate. » Their whole life is in the balance. Add to that the excessive temperature, « over 40 degrees », without food or water :
« Yeah, I think we’re close to torture. »
On 12 March 2019, it is not the first time that Amar Benmohamed reports the illegal behaviour of some of his colleagues. At the end of the summer of 2018, the Chief Brigadier denounced thefts committed by several of these young police agents. The rookies had put in place a well-established technique for pocketing cash. On busy days, they volunteered to open a second chest to store « the searches » (all the objects that the detainees have on them). Once out of sight, the stooges steal some of the cash or small electronic devices (in particular, a tablet). The stolen items are then simply not logged in the search reports. One of the police agents, caught red-handed by a colleague, is reported to have said :
« This bastard (an Asian man) doesn’t speak a word of French, no one cares about him. »
Questioned, again by this colleague, on the risk of seeing the inmate start a scandal out of the situation, he would have simply said :
« Don’t worry, I’m used to it, it’s a bastard’s word against ours and I only target guys who don’t speak a word of French. »
Amar Benmohamed a dénoncé plusieurs faits de vols de ses collègues à l'IGPN. L'un d'eux s'est spécialisé dans le vol de déférés « qui ne parlent pas français ». / Crédits : DR
Theft involving officers of this department would not be limited to money and devices. In 2016 and 2017, significant quantities of narcotics would have disappeared from the « Cusco Room ». This room, within the forensic medical unit of the Hôtel-Dieu [NT: the hospital located near the old Court], is under the custody of the same police department. It is here, in particular, that « mules » stopped at airports while trying to smuggle drugs are brought to defecate the small packs containing the drugs. According to our information, following these drug disappearances, an IGPN investigation was opened and at least ten officers at the jail were interviewed. We do not know whether the investigation has shed any light on the responsibility of the persons investigated, and there is nothing to link this case to the police officers involved in the above-mentioned events.
Also according to our information, several agents facing the IGPN or their superiors have confirmed both the money thefts reported in 2018 and all the racist abuse and insults reported the following year. The direct superiors of the accused police agents are also aware of these problems. This is evidenced by a series of e-mails sent by senior officers reminding the police, at the jail, of a number of rules. For example, in one of them, it is stated that :
« Racist, abusive or discriminatory comments, whether directed at defendants or even between officers, are serious breaches that can be subject to legal and administrative proceedings. They should therefore be prohibited. »
Les gradés étaient au courant des faits dénoncés par Amar Benmohamed. Ici, un mail du 12 mars 2019 pour rappeler aux policiers du dépôt un certain nombre de règles sur le racisme et le droit des déférés. / Crédits : DR
The author of the e-mail, a lieutenant, continues :
« In addition to this, I attach particular importance to detainees being able to enjoy all of their rights, especially eating, drinking, access to doctor and a blanket. »
Moreover, there are many e-mails, always signed by senior officers, reminding the agents of the rules governing the use of surveillance cameras, specifying in particular that it is forbidden to film the surveillance screens with smartphones and mentioning on several occasions the « incidents » or « problems ». Amar Benmohamed helps decipher the language :
« We had several guys filming the surveillance screens when we had celebrities at the jail. Afterwards, they would use them to brag with girls. »
He also tells how some agents have directly taken photographs of public figures in situations where they were at their disadvantage. « Alexandre Benalla, for example ». Contacted by StreetPress, he confirmed that a photo (later published in the weekly newspaper Le Point) had been taken, without his consent, by an agent of the department.
Un mail du 14 août 2019 d'un gradé pour rappeler aux policiers du dépôt de respecter le droits des déférés et éviter le racisme « afin d'éviter toute sanction » / Crédits : DR
Many lawyers have heard the stories of abuse from their clients. Of the 20 « black dresses » we reached out to, ten confirmed to StreetPress that they had received such feedback. Philippe-Henri Honegger says it is, « a behaviour that is very regularly reported ». « During one out of two shifts, I have clients who complain that they have not had any food », says Amélie Carron. « I have indeed received feedback on multiple vexations », adds lawyer Camille Vannier. In addition, in a report for the Defender of the Rights that StreetPress was able to consult, several high school students from the Arago High School (on 22 June 2018, 102 young people were arrested following the occupation of the school) also complain about mistreatment in the jail.
The criminal errors of certain police officers stationed at the Paris High Court dépôt prison did not spare colleagues. A report details an altercation between two police officers with threatening gestures and racist remarks. Two other police agents also claim to have been subjected to « moral harassment » by fellow agents. In an August 2019 report, the first speaks about « degrading comments and repeated threats » against her. She is accused of taking a sick leave, that is said to have had an impact on the schedules of his other colleagues. « I think you don’t expect to be very well received when you come back ! », reportedly threatened one of her colleagues in an email message. In her report, the victim states :
« I add that two other colleagues who were also on sick leave or injured on duty received the same negative treatment and consideration. »
Upon her return, she is « treated » with a real welcoming committee. A policewoman reportedly « verbally assaults her by bringing her face within an inch [of hers] ». This policewoman would have snapped :
« Colleagues like you : they deserve slaps in the face, even the hierarchy’s fed up with you. »
In the conclusion of her report, she writes : « I would like to point out that the entire hierarchy of the night brigade was aware of the facts ». After this attack, the agent was placed on sick leave and an investigation was opened by the IGPN.
Dans un autre rapport, Amar Benmohamed pointe la tentative de violence et la remarque raciste d'un policier du dépôt envers son collègue. / Crédits : DR
Several young female police agents also complained about inappropriate reference and comments made by their superiors. One of them, in particular, is accused of attitudes that could be characterized as sexual harassment. For example, to « female colleagues, he said, ‘I can give you your body measurements just by looking at you’ », reports Amar Benmohamed. He doesn’t stop at words. « He put his hand on the hands of young agents or took them by their hips. » While some people dare to push back this superior, others, according to several written documents that StreetPress was able to consult, come to work at the Court stressed out and anxious, « with a ball in their stomach ».
Until when? On 12 March 2019, Amar Benmohamed’s written denunciation of repeated racist insults and serial abuse forced his superiors to react : he copied in several senior officers. And even if, as our second investigation shows, there is still a clear willingness on the part of the hierarchy (right up to Prefect Lallement’s office) to bury the case, the IGPN is seized. To date, no sanctions have been taken and the case has not been referred to the courts. A series of transfers of some offices to new positions has taken place, and that’s it. This is not a punishment, since the officers in question obtain the position they requested. The consequence of this turnover is to calm things down at the night jail, according to Chief Brigadier Benmohamed.
Le brigadier-chef Amar Benmohamed, 48 ans, a dénoncé ces faits de maltraitance et de racisme au sein du dépôt pendant trois ans. / Crédits : Yann Castanier
Has the page been definitively turned ? Not sure… StreetPress has read two accounts of events following this wave of transfers that fit perfectly with the reported criminal habits of certain agents at the jail.
In December 2019, lawyer Camille Vannier counsels three men of Chadian nationality. Upon leaving the jail, the trio complained that they had not had access to food :
« They saw that some people had had food and they had not. They also told me they were made fun of. But as they spoke a hesitant French, they were unable to report the comments to me more precisely. »
Another case. On June 15, 2020, Gaspard D. is, after police custody, brought before the court. Just before his presentation to the magistrates, he is placed in a small room adjoining the courtroom. It is there, just a few meters away from the judges, that the mistreatment and insults begin, reports his lawyer Hanna Rajbenbach. He recounts. « I told them I was quite weak and asked if they could bring me food or call a doctor. » Officers refuse. So to try to get access to the doctor, Gaspard D. starts banging on the door. « They responded with mockery and insults. » Worse yet, the jeering continues even during the hearing :
« In the defendant dock, they were whispering insults such as ‘son of a bitch’ or in relation to what was said during the hearing. »
For example when the prosecutor talks about the death of the defendant’s biological father. « The policemen told me I deserved it. Things like that. » Back in the cell, the insults keep flying.
« It was a constant stream. ‘Go back to your fucking psychiatrist’, ‘your girlfriend, I’ll fuck her’, ‘if you’re hungry, suck my dick’, ‘fuck off’ »
Until the jail, where the abuse continues. « I had a cold meal, they took the mattress and blanket away from me the next morning, in retaliation. »
Some of the agents implicated in our investigation are still employed in the jail, the management has not changed, and the majority of these officers have even risen in rank.
READ THE FOLLOW-UP TO THIS INVESTIGATION: How the police hierarchy tried to stifle cases of abuse at the Paris Tribunal [in French]
(1) The jail was renamed Compagnie de Gare de la Zone d’Attente [NT: CGZA, Company of the Station of the Waiting Zone]. As the people we interviewed continue to call it “dépôt” or jail, we have chosen to keep this term in our investigation.
(2) Contacted by StreetPress, the Ministry of Justice forwarded our questions to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, “the only one authorized to answer if an investigation is underway” (which they did not specify). The latter explains “that all the facts brought to the attention of the Public Prosecutor’s Office gave rise to judicial investigations, entrusted to the IGPN. “According to another source, only isolated facts were brought to the attention of the public prosecutor’s office: “There is, a priori, no umbrella investigation that would deal with facts committed by a group over a period of time,” our source testifies.
The Prosecutor’s Office also informs us that “six representatives of the General Controller of Places of Deprivation of Liberty [NT: CGLPL, the body in charge of the control of jails and prisons] carried out from the 7th to 9th of October 2019 a complete visit of the premises of the jail, following which, they sent a provisional report dated 19th of December 2019 to the heads of the Courts”. This report is not yet public, the CGLPL told StreetPress. As mentioned above, the presidency of the High Court of Paris has declared to StreetPress that it is not aware of the facts mentioned. Neither the team of Stéphane Noël, the current president of the High Court, nor that of his predecessor have been alerted (the presidency however specifies that it has been alerted on two or three occasions of isolated facts). “If the facts that you report are true, they are totally unacceptable,” the presidency added.
As far as concerned, the Paris police prefecture said it was “particularly aware of the need to monitor and supervise young personnel” and also assured that “when a report is made of an incident that could be classified as a criminal offense, the judicial system is notified by the police hierarchy, and the public prosecutor’s office then decides to refer the matter to the department best suited to the investigation, including the IGPN if necessary. The Prefecture of Police, taking into account the principle of respect for the confidentiality of the investigation, will not comment on the legal proceedings in progress.”
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