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Gang on trial for torturing French Jew to death

THE trial opened today of a self-proclaimed "gang of barbarians" accused of kidnapping a young Jewish man, torturing him for 24 days and killing him, a crime that horrified France in 2006.

The death of Ilan Halimi, 23, came to symbolise violence in France's troubled, multi-ethnic suburbs, which had just experienced a wave of riots. In particular the Jewish community denounces a rise in anti-Semitism among young people of Arab or African origin.

The leader of the "barbarians" was Youssouf Fofana, a young French man of Ivorian origin. He has admitted all the charges against him except the accusation that he was the one who stabbed Halimi to death.

Fofana, 28, stands accused of kidnapping, sequestration, torture and assassination. The charge sheet also includes anti-Semitism, which French law considers an "aggravating circumstance" requiring the stiffest sentences. Fofana faces life in jail.

The trial is scheduled to last two and a half months during which 162 witnesses and 50 experts will testify. It will take place behind closed doors at the request of two of the defendants who were minors at the time of the crime.

Halimi was kidnapped on Jan. 20, 2006 in the Paris suburb of Sceaux where he had been lured by a girl who acted as a "honey-trap".

His kidnappers tried unsuccessfully to extort a ransom of 450,000 euros ($593,700) from his family.

They held Halimi in a cellar in another suburb, tortured him until he was close to death, then dumped him near a train station. He died in hospital shortly after he was found.

Jewish and anti-racist groups organised a march in Paris to honour Halimi on Feb. 26, 2006. It was marred by skirmishes between Jewish and Arab youths on the fringes of the march.

Many in France's Jewish community say they have experienced a rise in anti-Semitism among disaffected youths of Arab and African origin since the second Palestinian uprising started in late 2000, because of feelings of solidarity with the Palestinians.

Those feelings have mingled in the minds of some of these youths with older anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Several members of the "barbarians gang" testified that Halimi was targeted because he was Jewish, which in their minds meant he had money and his community would pay to get him back.

After the murder, Fofana fled to Ivory Coast. From there he made death threats by telephone to Halimi's father and girlfriend. He was extradited to France on March 4, 2006.

During his time in detention, Fofana has bombarded the magistrates investigating the case with letters full of anti-Semitic insults.

Among the 26 other defendants, of whom 19 are also in detention, are the girl who was used as bait to capture Halimi, young men who took part in the abduction and who guarded the captive, and several people who knew but didn't go to police.


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