PARIS (AP) — Three former French soldiers were convicted by a Paris jury Friday and another one was acquitted of murder-related charges in the 2005 suffocation death of a suspected Ivory Coast gang leader. The three who were convicted, however, won't serve prison time.
Firmin Mahe died when a plastic trash bag was put over his head and taped to his neck while in custody inside a French armored vehicle seven years ago. French forces were deployed across the middle of the African country at the time to prevent clashes between northern rebels and Ivorian troops in the south.
The case has raised questions about alleged confusion about military orders passed down the ranks. A subsequent cover-up shook the French military. A Defense Ministry spokesman said the convictions were the first in decades involving the deaths of an African national at the hands of French soldiers.
Friday's verdict could have repercussions for France's post-colonial image across Africa, where thousands of French troops are still stationed today, including in Ivory Coast, under bilateral or international accords.
Outside the courtroom, about a dozen protesters shouted their anger that the soldiers would not do any prison time — some draping plastic trash bags over their heads or yelling "Shame on France."
Col. Eric Burgaud, on trial for complicity in murder, was given a five-year suspended sentence for having sent a "clearly illegal order to kill" to the soldiers inside the vehicle, according to a printed summary of the court's reasoning. Chief Warrant Officer Guy Raugel, who wrapped Mahe's head in the bag, was given a four-year suspended prison sentence.
Mahe was injured on May 13, 2005, during a firefight with French forces, and taken into custody. Burgaud relayed what he allegedly believed was an order that Mahe was not to arrive alive when transferred to the town of Man. Mahe was suffocated while handcuffed and suffering a badly injured leg in the back of the vehicle.
Cpl. Johannes Schnier, who held down Mahe, was given a one-year suspended sentence for complicity in murder. The vehicle's driver, Cpl. Lianrifou Ben Youssouf, was acquitted of charges of not intervening to stop a crime from being committed.
Two years ago, a Paris military court dropped charges including "complicity in murder" against Gen. Henri Poncet, then the commander of France's 4,000-strong peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast. Poncet repeatedly denied any role in the killing or claims that he had subtly transmitted an order for Mahe to be killed.
The trial that ended Friday was conducted in criminal court, not a military court, as part of a recent change in French law regarding cases involving soldiers.
Raugel always admitted to having suffocated Mahe, and "defended the legitimacy of the order in his eyes," the court said. Burgaud never denied his role, but claimed that Poncet had implicitly ordered the killing — and relayed that order to the men in the vehicle. Mahe was believed to be a member of one of the gangs behind the deaths of at least two dozen civilians.
The court, in its reasoning, pointed to attenuating circumstances in the case — including the complexity of the situation in Ivory Coast, the limits of the international mandate that authorized the French presence, and the "powerlessness" of the U.N. peacekeeping mission to arrest gang members who repeatedly blocked off roads in the area.
"I think this is a just decision. The court understood the distress of these French soldiers who were sent to Ivory Coast in the spring of 2005, and were confronted with barbarity," said Alexis Gublin, Burgaud's lawyer. "Their choices were illegal — that's why they were convicted today — but the court saw very broad attenuating circumstances."