France’s highest appeals court has reopened a trial of two police officers accused of failing to help two teenagers whose 2005 electrocution deaths sparked riots across the country.
In a ruling that averts possible tension in the grim suburbs ringing many French cities, the court ordered the retrial on Wednesday to fully assess accusations that police failed to rescue two teenagers who fled inside an electrical substation and were electrocuted.
The two boys – Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17 – were electrocuted while hiding from police in a power substation in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois on October 27, 2005. A third teenager suffered serious burns.
The brother of one of the two victims praised the court for overturning a lower court that had ruled last year to drop the case against the officers for lack of concrete evidence.
“It’s a great day for us and for all those that shared our pain and suffering,” said Traore’s brother, Siyakha, speaking to the Sipa news agency outside the Paris court.
He said he is “very relieved” and that the ruling constitutes “a huge step forward”.
Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland, reporting from Paris, said the decision was unexpected.
“It is an historic decision for French justice. Everyone was expecting the supreme court today to merely rubber stamp a decision of the other courts but the judge turned the decision on its head and said that he wants to instruct a court now to go back to the original events,” she said.
In 2005, local youths blamed the police for the deaths and exploded in anger, burning cars and smashing store windows.
The teenagers’ deaths stoked frustration nationwide among largely minority youths in poor housing projects, and fiery riots raged across the country for three weeks, leading France to declare a state of emergency.
Tensions between French police and youths in poor neighbourhoods still simmer and occasionally erupt into violence.
The question of the police officers’ responsibility in the deaths has been a divisive one.
In 2010, investigating judges ruled that the officers should face trial on charges of “non-assistance to a person in danger”.
But the regional prosecutor’s office argued there was not enough evidence to show the officers knew the boys were inside the power station.
The two defendants were a police intern at a command post listening to radio communications from the scene and an officer who allegedly saw the two teenagers enter the power substation.
France’s interior ministry initially denied that the police had chased the youths before they hid in the power station.
But an internal police review confirmed the officers had been chasing the teenagers before they were killed and said officers should immediately have notified French energy company EDF that the youths were hiding in the power station.
Under French law, everyone – not just police – must try to help a person in danger as long as they or others are not threatened by bringing such aid.
The case will now go to the appeals court in the French city of Rennes.