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French Justice on the Fast Track

Hundreds of accused rioters have opted for expedited trials. Two cases illustrate the efficiencies and the ambiguities involved.

November 21, 2005|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

BOBIGNY, France — The defendants rose.

Out of the smoke and fury of the past weeks, the phrase "French rioters" took shape in two faces. Two names. Two stories.

After police guards unlocked their handcuffs, Fatelah Hacini and Cisse Diallou remained standing for the start of their trial Friday evening in a courtroom in this industrial suburb of Paris, one of the poorest, bleakest, most violent places in France. It was at the heart of the riots that shook the country. So the machinery of justice had been cranking round the clock.

Hacini, 20, compact and thick-necked, wore a black leather jacket. He had an incipient goatee and wore his hair shaved close on the sides, longer on top. The French-born son of Algerian immigrants tilted his head pugnaciously when a prosecutor described how he had threatened a witness at an earlier hearing.

Asked how he pleaded, Hacini growled: "Sir, I have a 3-year-old son. I don't have time to go around burning cars."

Diallou was 21 but looked like a teenager: tall, narrow-shouldered, sleepy-eyed. He wore a hooded black-and-white track suit. He lived in a public housing project, his Mauritanian family of eight crammed into one apartment. His gaze swept across relatives in the audience. Thick-set, middle-aged men with beards and work-cracked hands, women looking wearily regal in gold earrings, turbans or wool shawls draped over multicolored African robes.

"I ran because everybody ran," Diallou murmured. "I saw the cars burning, the riot police coming. Everybody ran, so I ran."

The two men stood accused of torching two cars Nov. 2, when the riots were in headlong escalation. The mayhem of their cases -- and the ambiguities -- were typical of the more than 600 that have been tried nationwide, resulting in 380 convictions.

Like most suspected rioters, Hacini and Diallou chose fast-track trials, which are held within days or even hours of arrests. Designed for misdemeanors in which the facts are relatively simple, such trials speed a creaky, paper-driven justice system. Defense lawyers often recommend the fast-track option to working-class youths because the alternative usually is doing time in France's notoriously harsh jails until a traditional trial is held.

The stage for the two men's drama of assembly-line riot justice is a courthouse where a Paris subway line ends after crossing a no-man's land of rail yards, factories and expressways that separate the capital from its working-class suburbs.

The antithesis of the magnificent stone citadel of the courthouse in downtown Paris, Bobigny's "palace of justice" embodies a ponderous architecture that was popular in France in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then the style looked futuristic. Now it makes some French suburbs resemble decaying backdrops from "The Jetsons."

The boxlike courthouse combines concrete, steel and glass. Light pours into an atrium filled with tall vegetation. But on closer inspection, the interior shows the strain of the years. Graffiti scar the walls and fixtures. The elevators and public toilets malfunction. Cigarette butts carpet the floors. Rats lurk in the underground lockups, lawyers say.

After entering from a brutally cold day, the defendants' friends and relatives kept their coats on in the ground-floor courtroom where fast-track trials are held. The chamber recalled the lounge of a well-kept bus station: unadorned red-brick walls, exposed ducts and minimalist, slablike tables and chairs. There were no flags, symbols or decoration.

The spectators coughed and fidgeted through a motley parade of accused airport thieves, illegal immigrants, drug dealers and strong-arm robbers that lasted all afternoon. Bobigny has a massive caseload filled with the kind of violence that still does not seem routine elsewhere in France. In a nearby courtroom, a felony court docket unrelated to the riots included cases of murder, murder by torture, arson causing murder and injury, gang rape and rape of a child.

A full 30% of cases in the district are resolved by fast-track trial, more than double the national average, according to Frederic Gabet, the head of the regional lawyers guild.

In the best of times, lawyers and judges prepare for fast-track trials on the fly, huddling briefly with clients and speed-reading files. Because riots are inherently collective and chaotic, the express-lane approach only worsens the challenge of handling cases fairly and professionally.

Moreover, the dilemma of the courts in meting out punishment reflects a larger debate about the riots. As the unrest subsided last week, many politicians, law enforcement officials and average citizens called the rampages the work of hardened criminals who often went unpunished because of official restraint and generalized confusion.

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