Today, May 14, marks one month since the judgment by the French Cour de Cassation, the country’s supreme court, in the case of the murder of Sarah Halimi. The court’s decision has caused international outrage and has deepened angst amongst France’s Jewish community.
It came in the context of persisting anti-Semitic assaults and vandalism undiminished by the COVID-19 lockdowns. From 2012 onward, high profile anti-Semitic crimes, terrorist attacks, murders, vandalism of Jewish places of worship, cemeteries and stores have plagued Europe’s largest Jewish community. Jews have moved out of certain areas of France, considered too unsafe to live, in what was coined the “internal Aliyah.” Despite this, and a large wave of actual Aliyah in 2015, French Jews by and large remain vocally committed to La Republique. The latest ruling in the Halimi case inevitably challenges this unwavering commitment, tested by much hardship over the past decade.
In the judgment, the Cour de Cassation ruled that Kobili Traoré would not stand trial for the murder of Sarah Halimi, a Jewish 65-year-old teacher and physician.
Traoré, a Mali-born French man with a long list of criminal convictions, broke into Sarah Halmi’s apartment on April 4, 2017, clubbed her in the head with a blunt object and threw her out of her window to her death.
The two were neighbours in the six-story building in the working-class neighborhood of Belleville in Paris. When they crossed paths in the hall, Traoré would sometimes call her and her daughter “dirty Jewesses.”
On the night of the murder, Traoré was heard by witnesses shouting: “Allahu Akbar, I killed the demon!”
When the case got to deposition, he stated for the record that he had felt “oppressed” by the sight of a Torah and a Menorah in Sarah Halimi’s home, which sparked the attack.
In the face of such blatant anti-Semitism, it had been already a cause of great concern that the court had taken nearly a year to at last confirm, in 2018, that anti-Semitism had been a motive in the case, something the prosecution had failed to establish well into the investigation. You can read more about persisting challenges to recognize anti-Semitic motives in France here.
As this initial challenge was finally overcome, four years after the murder and following several proceedings, the main question at issue was whether Traoré, who had a history of mental illness, had completely “abolished” judgment on the night of the attack or merely “altered” judgment.
Three expert panels were consulted by the court to determine this. The first expert psychiatrist concluded that the deterioration of Traoré’s mental state resulted from his massive consumption of cannabis and that he could therefore be referred to criminal court.
The second one, however, contradicted the first and held that he could not be held responsible because his drug abuse had only aggravated a pre-existing disorder.
More ambiguously, the third panel of experts argued instead that Traoré could not be held responsible because he had been in the middle of a bouffée délirante, a “sharp delusional puff,” a common diagnostic term used in France.
The court, which was not required to follow any of the experts, ultimately followed the latter. This means that Kobili Traoré will not stand trial for the brutal anti-Semitic murder of Sarah Halimi and will remain in the psychiatric institution where he has been kept ever since the attack.
Condemnations swiftly poured in. Across France, Europe and the world, tens of thousands of demonstrators went out on the streets to express their outrage.
B'nai B'rith France mobilized en masse, as they have all throughout this bitter process, from Paris to Marseille, from Nice to Lyon, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lille and across the entire country in support of the Halimi family.
“Should we legalise anti-Semitism?” the satirical Charlie Hebdo chimed in with a poignant and characteristically blunt cartoon.
Indeed, as many others have noted, the ruling has the perverse effect that the intentional use of drugs can be regarded as an exonerating factor in a hate crime.
Answering to public sentiment, the French government’s response was swift. “Deciding to take narcotics and then become 'crazed' should not in my eyes remove criminal responsibility," declared President Emmanuel Macron.
This was followed by an announcement by Justice Minister Eric Dupond Moretti that a new law would be presented in May that would do away with invoking this type of defense for anyone who voluntarily used drugs and alcohol before committing a crime.
Amending the law
Amending the law is essential in order to restore the trust of the French Jewish community, many of whom suffer the daily kind of harassment that Sarah Halimi encountered prior to her murder and who feel that this judgment does too little to protect them.
I should note that the fact that the law is unclear does not mean that French courts do not hold anyone under the influence of drugs accountable for their actions.
In another 2017 case, a man in Marseille under the influence of alcohol and drugs who broke into his neighbor's apartment and killed a dog by throwing it out of a 4th floor window was deemed criminally responsible and sentenced to two years imprisonment.
In contrast, in the Sarah Halimi case, the court, astonishingly, found that there could be no criminal responsibility because the law “itself does not make a distinction with regard to the origin of the mental disorder.”
The court missed the point: the indisputable self-confessed anti-Semitism of the killer
Of course, the question of Traoré’s responsibility is far from clear-cut. But what the experts, and eventually the court, have all failed to see is that the center of gravity in the case is not Traoré’s drug abuse or erratic behavior, but the indisputable self-confessed anti-Semitism that motivated him to commit a heinous crime.
It was anti-Semitism which led Kobili Traoré to target Sarah Halimi specifically, not “delusional mystical elements,” as one of the experts had claimed. And in doing so, he showed sufficient discernment. Not grasping this fundamental fact is probably the court’s biggest failure.
It could have weighed in on how the law fails to distinguish between a drug-addled delusional puff and outright insanity.
It could also have sought to clarify the question of legal responsibility. Instead, by doing neither it created an unacceptable state of impunity.
The lawyers of the Halimi family have vowed to seek justice both at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and in the Israeli court system. The latter is possible due to Sarah Halimi’s Israeli nationality. This is not unusual. For instance, in terrorism cases, France regularly claims jurisdiction when the victims are French citizens. A ruling on this anti-Semitic hate crime in Israeli courts would perhaps provide a modicum of justice for the Halimi family.
In the aftermath of the verdict, Jewish communities in France and across Europe are outraged at this denial of justice. They fear for their safety and that of their loved ones and feel that the justice system may no longer be on their side.
In dealing with this case, Europeans would do well not to dismiss this outpour of emotion as “hysteria.”
As we have seen, there are several legitimate grounds why the court’s decision is deeply flawed and the proposed amendment to the law must remedy this unjust state of affairs and ensure that the tragic fate of Sarah Halimi never befalls anyone else.
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