The death of Abelhak Goradia: a worrying silence in France

The recent death of an Algerian national at the hands of the police during deportation should provoke public indignation. It demands explanation, says Nath Gbikpi.

Nath Gbikpi
1 September 2014
Detention centre, Vincennes

Detention centre, VincennesOn Thursday 21st August, the 51 year old Algerian national Abdelhak Goradia passed away before reaching the airport of Charles de Gaulles, from where he would have been deported back to Algeria. Abdlhak had been in the detention centre of Vincennes since 12th August. He had been transferred there from prison, where he had spent a conviction for theft fraud. A first attempt at removing Abdelhak had failed on 16th August, when Abdelhak had resisted his deportation and was brought back to the detention centre. On 21st August, Abdelhak was not told he was going to be deported, and his name did not appear on the screen showing the names of those scheduled to be deported on that day. Instead, and according to other detainees’ testimonies, Abdelhak was called for a visit, and then brought to the van which would lead him to the airport. Abdelhak called his lawyer at around 7.00 pm of that night, telling him that he was being brought to the airport. A few hours later, Abdelhak was declared dead.

Abdelhak’s case is not unique; there have been at least two other cases of death during a deportation attempt in France. In December 2002, an Argentinean national, Ricardo Barrientos, aged 52 passed away in the plane that was to bring him back to Argentina. Ricardo had been forcibly restrained in the plane. The next month, the Somali Mariame Getu Hagos also passed away in the plane that was to remove him, having received similar treatments to Ricardo.

Cases like these are not restricted to France. In October 2010, the Institute of Race Relations drew a list of 14 deaths since 1991 during forced deportations from European countries. The official cause of death in most cases was positional asphyxia or cardiac arrest. In the UK, the case of Jimmy Mubenga recently reappeared in the news after three G4S custody officers involved in his death were charged with manslaughter.

What is striking in the case of Abdelhak is the considerable lack of public reaction following his death. In the case of Jimmy Mubenga, more than 150 persons marched demanding justice shortly after his death in October 2010. 50 more people protested again on the first year anniversary of Jimmy’s death and 40 on the second year anniversary.

In contrast, the case of Abdelhak has attracted scarce media attention, and articles which broach the topic have generally not gone beyond a summary of the ‘facts’. With the exception of a few activists - such as RESF (Réseau éducation sans frontiers / Network of Education without Borders), there has been no debate, and very few have expressed strong opinions on the case.

And yet, many aspects of the story could or should engender indignation, or at the very least prompt calls for greater transparency and accountability. The most obvious need is to deal with the unanswered questions about what actually happened during the hours preceding Abdelhak’s death. Was any violence committed by the officials who attempted to remove Abdelakh? Did Abdelhak die of a cardiac arrest as the first official version states, or from asphyxia as alleged later on? Why did Abdelhak’s nephews report having seen hematomas when they went to identify their uncle’s body?

An investigation has been opened to throw light on the affair, and any debates prior to its results clearly remain speculative. However, even if we want to avoid speculating, many other aspects of the story are troublesome and should foster concern.

For instance, Abdelhak was the father of a 6 year old French child. It is not clear what kind of relationship he had with his child, however it appeared to be sufficient for Abdelhak’s lawyer to challenge the deportation earlier in August on the grounds that Abdelhak had a family life in France. Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights protects the right to family and private life. When assessing a breach of this right, the extent to which a person has established a private and family life in the country has to be considered; the extent to which a specific action – in this case the removal from the country – will affect this right; and whether the removal is proportionate and necessary in a democratic society. The right to family and private life is not, therefore, an absolute right; when interfering with it is proportionate to other aims – in this case, presumably, the security of France and its inhabitants – it can be lawful to do so. In any event though, it is necessary to look at whether the removal was in fact proportionate and this should, therefore, be a matter of debate.

Another debatable aspect is that Abdelhak had a hearing scheduled for 28th August 2014, that is a week after his removal was attempted. This hearing resulted from Abdelhak’s lawyer challenging his client’s deportation on the grounds that the decision to deport him was based on reasons that are usually used for offenders of more serious crimes than the ones Abdelhak had committed. In other words, Abdelhak’s removal was not reasonable and proportionate. It is important to stress that this type of challenge, called référé-suspension (the closest equivalent to it in British law being the judicial review), is not suspensive. In practice, the French authorities were still free to deport Abdelhak, despite the pending appeal. However, this is a point that most  newspapers have not raised, despite the enormous implications this could have on the right to access to justice.

The fact that neither Abdelhak nor his legal representative were aware that he was going to be deported up to the point he was taken away by the officials in charge, should not only engender a discussion on the legality of the action, it should also attract fury on a human level: Abdelhak did not have time to prepare a luggage, to call his relatives, nor to prepare in any way for his removal, including on an emotional level.

There are plenty of reasons to react to Abdelhak’s death. And yet the only people who seem to have immediately reacted are some of Abdelhak’s fellow detainees, who started a hunger strike and released some statements testifying to their indignation. The Coordination Parisienne des Sans-Papiers’ (the Parisian Coordination for Undocumented Migrants) called for a protest on Friday 29 August, more than a week after the tragic event. Latefa Guemar, an Algerian national, visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE) and Research Associate at The Centre for Migration Policy Research (CMPR) at Swansea University, told me she was particularly shocked by the lack of reaction from the Algerian diaspora.

The reasons for the silence following Adbelhak’s death are certainly various and complex ones, and should be seen in light of the current French political and economic context that favours anti-immigration discourses and tight immigration control policies. A brief look at the figures regarding deportation and detention shows that the change of government in 2012 (from the Sarkozy’s led right-wing government to the Hollande’s left-wing government) has not been accompanied by a change of practice in regards to immigration control.

While according to some figures. the number of enforced removals in 2013 was 21,000 compared to 36,000 in 2012, the new French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has been anxious to state that this is a misleadingly low figure because the figures of 2012, as opposed to those of 2013, included assisted returns.

In a similar wave, figures published by NGO La Cimade showed that there has been a 4.5% rise in the number of detainees in mainland France from 2012 to 2013. The same publication notes that, although there is a limit to the number of days one can be detained – as opposed to the British policy of unlimited detention – even that has seen a drastic increase, growing from 7 days in 1981 to 12 days in 1998, to 32 days in 2003 to finally reach the current limit of 45 days.

The current political climate in France is one in which politicians from all parties measure their success, inter alia, by the number of irregular migrants they can detain and deport. And this is the context in which we have seen such little public scrutiny and debate of this man’s death whilst in the hands of the French state.

The death of Abdelhak, however, is much more than a question of deportation. It is a death at the hands of the police; it is the separation of a father from his child; it is an illustration of the lack of transparency of the French removal policy. It is, in short, an event that should provoke sentiments of indignation and demands for explanations. Or have we now dehumanised migrants to the extent that we close our eyes before potential police abuse, barred access to justice, forsaken rights to family and, most importantly, the right to life and dignity in death?

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