A French court has acquitted two police officers accused of contributing to the deaths of two teenagers in a blighted Paris suburb a decade ago.
The deaths of Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, prompted weeks of riots across France in 2005, exposing anger and resentment in neglected, crime-ridden housing projects.
The two boys, who had been chased by police, entered a power substation in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois to hide and were electrocuted.
A third boy survived the powerful 20,000-volt electric shock with severe burns.
On Monday, the court in the western city of Rennes ruled that officers Sebastien Gaillemin and Stephanie Klein were not responsible.
Neither had a “clear awareness of grave and imminent danger” as required by French law, said Judge Nicolas Leger.
Moments after the verdict was read, a young woman rose in the back of the courtroom and shouted: “The police above the law, as always.”
“You are responsible!” shouted Zyed’s brother Adel at the two police officers, just a few metres away.
Bouna’s brother Gaye told the AP news agency: “I have a sense of impunity, of injustice, and disgust.”
Activists called for protests at courthouses across the country following the verdict.
A representative for the boys’ families and the mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois urged protesters to remain calm.
The mood in the streets of Clichy-sous-Bois on Monday afternoon was subdued. Residents expressed little surprise at the verdict, some sighing in resignation.
About 200 activists and others gathered on Monday evening to protest at the courthouse in Bobigny, near the boys’ hometown.
About 25 riot police stood guard as protesters hung banners reading “Let’s Disarm the Police.”
“The message this verdict sends is that these two kids did not deserve help because they were black and Arab,” said protester Issa Diara, of a group called Brigade Antinegrophobie, set up in the Paris area after the 2005 riots to combat fear of black people.
“By acquitting these police officers it makes people believe that they did the right thing in not helping.”
‘Wouldn’t pay much for their skins’
The two French officers faced up to five years in prison had they been convicted of failing to assist someone in danger.
Authorities say Gaillemin, now 41, was chasing the three teenagers on October 27, 2005, and saw them head towards the power station, but did not help them avoid the danger or call emergency services.
Instead, he said into his police radio: “If they enter the site, I wouldn’t pay much for their skins.”
Klein, now 38, was an inexperienced police intern coordinating police radio communications and heard the remark.
The victims’ families have said they could have been saved by the officers, who insisted they were not to blame.
A lawyer for the police, Daniel Merchat, said there was simply not enough evidence of wrongdoing.
“It’s a ruling that corresponds to the factual and judicial reality of the case,” he said.
The 2005 deaths and ensuing riots cast a harsh light on the fate of housing projects populated by France’s poor, many with roots in former colonies in Africa.
Over three weeks of rioting, thousands of vehicles were torched, public buildings were burned and thousands of people were arrested. A state of emergency was also declared.
Within minutes of the verdict, the hashtag #ZyedEtBouna was trending on Twitter in France.