RENNES, France (AP) — A French court on Monday acquitted two police officers accused of contributing to the deaths of two minority teenagers in a blighted Paris suburb a decade ago — a long-awaited verdict that crushed the boys' families and raised fears of possible violence like that seen recently in the U.S.
The deaths of 15-year-old Bouna Traore and 17-year-old Zyed Benna prompted weeks of riots across France in 2005, exposing anger and resentment in neglected, crime-ridden suburban housing projects.
The two boys, 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 meters (yards) away. Bouna's brother Gaye told The Associated Press, "I have a sense of impunity, of injustice, and disgust."
Activists called for protests at courthouses across the country. 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 Monday evening a 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."
He alluded to anger over black men being killed by police or dying in police custody in Ferguson, Baltimore and other U.S. cities in recent months, then said, "in France, the practices of racism are more insidious — France has never been able to admit to racism."
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 Oct. 27, 2005, and saw them head toward 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.
During the proceedings in March, the presiding judge said the national police as a whole were not on trial. Even so, lawyers for both sides have emphasized the verdict's wider significance.
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 declared.
Terrorist attacks this January by three Frenchmen from poor, minority backgrounds revived worries about the government's failure to fix its troubled suburbs, or "banlieues."
The 10-year wait for a trial in the 2005 deaths made Monday's acquittal even more painful for the boys' families and activists.
Prosecutors repeatedly declined to bring the case against the officers, but the nation's highest court ordered a trial held in a different jurisdiction in western France. Even once it reached trial, the prosecutor in Rennes continued to argue that there wasn't enough evidence against the police, and ultimately requested acquittal.
Jean-Pierre Mignard, a lawyer for the families, said the verdict was proof of a "legal apartheid" in France.
Another lawyer for the families, Emmanuel Tordjman, told the AP that they will appeal the decision in hopes of getting civil damages. "The families are destroyed. They have a great sense of injustice ... as if Zyed and Bouna died for nothing," he said.
Clichy-sous-Bois Mayor Olivier Klein told the AP "the trial was necessary, but 10 years is much too long."
Within minutes of the verdict, the hashtag #ZyedEtBouna was trending on Twitter in France.
Keaten reported from Clichy-sous-Bois. Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.