Thousands marched through the suburbs of Paris on Saturday, some burning cars and smashing bus shelters, after police claimed that the anal violation of a black man with a baton was an accident, not a rape.
After a week of nightly clashes between officers and angry residents, Agence France-Presse reported, Saturday's huge protest began peacefully outside a courthouse in Bobigny, north of the capital.
Demonstrators carried signs — “Police rape,” read one, the outlet reported — and smaller groups assembled in other suburbs.
But before the day was done, at least 37 people would be in jail, and a little girl had to be rescued from a burning car. Police told AFP that “several hundred” people rampaged though the streets of Bobigny, “attacking cars, shops and public property.”
— Al Jazeera News (@AJENews) February 11, 2017
“The whole area where the demonstration started is now soaking in tear gas,” Al Jazeera reported from the city.
Théo, the victim, was still in a hospital during the chaos, AFP reported, after an operation for severe injuries to his anus.
He was covered in blood when he arrived at an emergency room Feb. 2.
Doctors discovered that his primary injury had been caused by a police truncheon that had been forced inside his rectum during a violent encounter with officers in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a suburb north of Paris.
Théo, a 22-year-old French youth worker whose last name has not been released, said that the injury — which required major surgery to repair — was inflicted intentionally and that he was the victim of a horrific sexual assault.
More than a week later, investigators have reached an entirely different conclusion: The violent sodomy was accidental and occurred when the officer’s expandable baton happened to slip into the victim’s anus.
While noting that the violent encounter was “very serious,” the investigation by France’s national police determined that the incident was “not a rape” because of the “unintentional character” of the penetration, according to Huffington Post's French edition.
Despite those conclusions, Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux announced Sunday that one officer faces aggravated rape charges and three others have been charged with aggravated assault, according to the Independent. The men deny the charges and have been suspended from the police force, the paper reported.
Théo said the incident began after he saw an officer slap someone and approached a group of police, according to the Huffington Post. He claims that the group took him around a corner and attacked.
“I didn’t try to run away. I told the officers, ‘You’ve torn my bag,’ to which they replied that they didn’t give a damn,” he said, according to the Huffington Post. “They all tried to grab me. I asked them why they were doing this, but they just continued to throw insults at me.”
“He told me to put my hands behind my back. They put handcuffs on me and then they told me to sit down,” he added. “They sprayed tear gas in my face, and then I had a pain in my buttocks. My trousers were lowered. I was in serious pain.”
During the encounter, Théo said, officers spit on him and called him names such as “Negro” and “bitch.”
Police claim that during the interaction, Théo’s pants “slipped down on their own.”
A police source told the Local that video taken at the scene and being reviewed by investigators shows an officer “applying a truncheon blow horizontally across the buttocks.”
On Tuesday, Théo was visited by President François Hollande, who tweeted that “Théo reacted with dignity and responsibility.”
Théo a réagi avec dignité et responsabilité. La justice a été saisie, il faut lui faire confiance. Elle ira jusqu'au bout. pic.twitter.com/YRlpdFXII6
— François Hollande (@fhollande) February 7, 2017
Hollande’s visit did little to quell the fury of rioters, who in recent nights have “aimed large fireworks at police and set fire to cars and garbage bins” in the “working-class region northeast of the French capital with a large minority population” known as Seine-Saint-Denis, according to the Associated Press. Between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, the AP reported, police arrested 26 people.
Théo and his family have urged the community to act peacefully.
“I would like to ask the residents of my neighborhood to calm down,” he told the French news station BFMTV. “I ask them to stop the hostilities because I love my city and I want to find it the way I left it.”
“Violence is not the way to support me,” he added. “Justice will do its job.”
Bruno Beschizza, the conservative mayor of Aulnay-sous-Bois, has described Théo as a “respectable” young man whose family has been “psychologically destroyed” by his suffering.
In a statement posted Thursday on Facebook, Beschizza acknowledged that “tensions remain palpable” in Aulnay-sous-Bois and called for peace.
“Justice has been seized,” the statement said. “The indictments were decided. Lawyers have been chosen. The presumption of innocence is respected. The Case will be judged in respect for the rights of each of the parties.”
“So we are now in the judicial time concerning the case of Théo,” the statement added. “This time must be respected. Justice must be able to work in complete transparency and in complete serenity.”
Yasser Louati, a French human rights and civil liberties activist, told Al Jazeera that the riots are fueled by the fact that the police are viewed “as an occupying force, not a force of protection for the weak and against crime.”
“There is an atmosphere of open defiance to the state ... the fear is that this might spark riots before the election, [which] may be a blessing for the right and far right,” he added.