April 19, 2019

Ilan Halimi, a 10-year Yahrzeit and tragic legacy

Last week marked the 10th anniversary of the gruesome killing of Ilan Halimi. All over France, pictures of a good-looking and happy 23-year-old covered the front pages of Jewish publications. A number of large-circulation newspapers in the French capital followed suit and dedicated a page or two to the memory of the first victim of a new type of violence. Events and memorials, some distinguished by the presence of high government officials such as the interior minister, were held to commemorate his murder. The movie “24 Days,” which chronicles his abduction and brutal end, was screened free of charge for the benefit of those unfamiliar with Halimi’s story. After 10 years, the significance of his murder is only now obvious to everyone. Or, I should say, everyone in France.

It started on Jan. 20, 2006, when a pretty, young, Iranian-born woman entered the phone shop where Halimi worked. She wore a necklace bearing the word “Yalda,” a Persian name that also happens to have a Hebrew meaning. Did Halimi take her to be Jewish? We will never know. She pretended to be shopping for a cellphone and asked Halimi many questions about his merchandise, made small talk, smiled, batted her eyes and, finally, suggested they should get coffee some time. She left with Halimi’s phone number.

That night, after Halimi and his family had concluded their Shabbat dinner around 9 p.m., his phone rang. It was Yalda. She asked him to meet up at a popular location and she suggested he bring his car. She then directed him to a quiet alley in a deserted neighborhood where she pretended she lived. She stopped in front of a door in the middle of a dark alley and fumbled in her bag, as if she were looking for her keys, killing time. Three men arrived. Halimi was captured. It was a trap.

In reality, the girl’s name was not Yalda, but Sorour Arbabzadeh. She was not shopping for phones or men; she was there on a mission. She had been ordered to seduce a Jewish guy and facilitate his abduction for her gang, Les Barbares (the Barbarians). The chief gangster, Parisian Youssef Fofana, who was born to immigrants from the Ivory Coast, was her sugar daddy. He had commissioned her for this job. Arbabzadeh was promised 5,000 euros and a piece of heaven in the afterlife if she could trap a Jew. And so she did. 

Halimi’s family learned of the situation the next day. They received an email with a photo of him in bondage. They received phone calls — ghastly, dreadful phone calls — and, somewhere between the anti-Semitic profanity and verses of the Quran, they were conveyed the message that to see their son alive again, they should pay his keepers a ransom of 450,000 euros. The family did not have that kind of money. Going to the police was the only solution they could think of. This is when a second tragedy began.

“Madam,” an officer asked as the investigation began in the Halimi family’s living room, “is your son involved with drugs?” Halimi’s mother couldn’t believe it. “Of course not!” she replied. The family recounted the anti-Semitic nature of the messages they had received. They assured the investigators that Halimi would not have been tangled up in anything remotely sinister.

But the police insisted on continuing their investigation as if it were a common crime. The family was ordered not to take any more calls from the kidnappers. The police explained: “We do not want the kidnappers to be emboldened by observing the family’s agony and despair.” Trusting the police and their competence was the family’s only hope. Law enforcement officials, as well as the interior minister at the time, assumed that the kidnappers would not harm the merchandise they wanted to trade for ransom money, and, as a result, they did not believe Halimi was in real danger. They assumed there was little likelihood that the kidnappers would live up to their word and hurt Halimi.

This might have been the case had it not been for the anti-Semitic and religious component of the situation. Consequently, the kidnapping was not publicized. There were no public calls for information, no hotlines to dial. No sketches of the kidnappers appeared in the newspapers or on television. Complete silence. When the mutilated, charred, stabbed, half-alive body of Halimi showed up near a railway 24 days after his kidnapping, it was too late. Halimi would die on his way to the hospital. His mother would find out the morning after by reading the newspaper. The police had failed.

In law enforcement’s defense, Halimi’s case was the first incident of kidnapping they had seen in 15 years. They did not have extensive hands-on experience dealing with such situations. But would this not have made this case anything but ordinary? Had the police taken the anti-Semitic nature of the crime more seriously, they would have known that only two weeks before Halimi, another Jewish man named Mikhael Douibe had been attacked. The two cases were eerily similar. Once again, the victim had been profiled. The victim was chosen because he was a Jew. A real estate agent, Douibe had gone on an onsite appointment only to find himself in a quiet, almost deserted neighborhood. Shortly after, a young woman let him inside a vacant apartment; he was brutally attacked by four men hurling anti-Semitic profanity. Luckily for Douibe, a passerby heard his cries and notified the police. The assailants ran away. The police found Douibe in a pool of blood, 90 cuts all over his body, suffering from several head and face fractures. He was almost dead. 

Douibe survived, thanks to seven life-saving surgeries, but the police failed to capture the perpetrators. Despite Douibe’s clear description of the assailants and of the hateful, violent and anti-Semitic component of the attack, the police ended the investigation. They wrote off Douibe’s case as an isolated incident, possibly business related. The criminals were not pursued. They remained free.

Halimi’s murder shook France. The members of the gang responsible for his kidnapping and murder, along with their affiliates who may have had knowledge of this plot and remained silent, were eventually apprehended and tried in a court of law.  The administration at the time went to every length to ensure that justice was served. Fofana was extradited from his refuge in the Ivory Coast and stood trial, but the case is far from over. Their sentences, the maximum allowed under the current legal system, were shamefully dismissive of the severity of the crime. Maximum penalty of life imprisonment was given only to Fofana. This sentence is appealable in 22 years, and Fofana’s religious proselytizing while in prison as well as violence against other inmates and prison staff have been reported in the media. His sentence has not prevented him from raising a family, as he has already fathered a child and has the opportunity to grow his family.

Of the 28 gangsters with French, African and Eastern European nationalities involved, only three will remain in jail for more than 10 years. The rest of the penalties ranged between 6 months and 9 years, with the option to appeal. A handful of them were acquitted. Enforcement of sentences, regrettably, has been less than satisfactory as well. Sorour Arbabzadeh (aka Yalda, or Emma as she is known to be calling herself most recently) has been free for four years already, able to walk the streets and shop for cellphones. Despite her scandalous time in prison, where she was physically and romantically involved with two male staff members, including the head administrator, her sentence was cut short by three years.  

Now, 10 years after Halimi’s murder, four years after the Jewish school carnage in Toulouse, one year after the Charlie Hebdo and kosher market massacres, and three months after the Paris blood bath of Nov. 13 that left 130 dead, we acknowledge the existence of a new kind of evil. Commemorating the 10th anniversary of Halimi ’s death marks the ominous mutation of traditional anti-Semitism into a hybrid of religious, multinational, global kind of terrorism that started as a Jew-hating, Israel-bashing movement and has already spilled over to the rest of the world. 

This is one anniversary we cannot afford to ignore.

Abigail Dayan is a freelance writer based in Paris reporting on social and cultural topics related to Judaism.