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May 27, 2021 1:14 pm
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French Senate Adopts ‘Criminal Responsibility’ Bill in Wake of Sarah Halimi Legal Travesty, as Concern Rises Over Alleged Murderer’s Possible Release

avatar by Ben Cohen

Demonstrators advocate justice for the late Sarah Halimi, at a rally in Paris, France, Sept. 13, 2020. Photo: Courtesy.

The French Senate has adopted the first draft of a bill that would amend the country’s penal code so that offenders under the influence of narcotics or alcohol are not deemed criminally irresponsible for their actions.

The bill was triggered by the decision of France’s highest appeal court in April to excuse from trial the accused murderer of Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Jewish woman who was viciously beaten and then thrown to her death from the third-floor window of her Paris apartment. The assailant, Kobili Traore, regaled his victim with antisemitic and Islamist rhetoric throughout Halimi’s ordeal.

In its April 14 ruling, the Court of Cassation argued that since Traore had imbibed what it termed an “acute delirious puff” on a marijuana joint that eliminated his “discernement” — or self-awareness — he could not “be judged criminally even when his mental state was caused by the regular consumption of drugs.”

Traore did admit his guilt for the crime during his one recorded court appearance in Nov. 2019. “What I committed was horrible. I regret what I did. I apologize to the civil parties,” he said. However, successive psychiatric experts consulted by the court continued to insist that Traore’s mental state at the time of the killing meant that he could not be deemed criminally responsible.

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The bill agreed by the Senate on Tuesday would reframe the French penal code, making it harder to invoke drug or alcohol intake as an excuse for avoiding criminal responsibility. The bill would also introduce into the penal code “a systematic increase in penalties for the perpetrators of crimes and offenses in the event of drunkenness or consumption of narcotics.”

“Beyond Dr. Halimi’s case, hundreds of victims are waiting for us to resolve the problem of irresponsibility linked to the fault of the perpetrator of the incriminated facts,” Nathalie Goulet — one of the co-sponsors of the bill — told local media.

Opposition to the bill was voiced by far left deputies during Tuesday night’s debate. Éliane Assassi of the French Communist Party (PCF) denounced what she described as “penal populism.”

In an editorial for the leading French newspaper Le Figaro on Wednesday, a top French judge strongly criticized the decision not to place Traore on trial when the opportunity presented itself.

Alain Alçufrom — vice-president of the Paris judicial tribunal — argued against the court’s determination that Traore’s chronic consumption of marijuana necessarily ruled out the conclusion that he had deliberately murdered Halimi.

“It is based on two guiding principles of criminal law: intentionality (no one can be held responsible for a crime without the intention to commit it) and the strict interpretation of criminal law,” the judge wrote.

“However, this analysis would undoubtedly have been different if the perpetrator had used cannabis with the intention of giving himself courage to commit an offense, or to escape his responsibility. In this case, in fact, the perpetrator’s criminal intention would have preceded his ingestion of toxic substances,” Alçufrom continued.

Traore, meanwhile, is reportedly no longer being held in a secure psychiatric unit. According to the newspaper Le Parisien, Traore was removed from the secure unit and transferred to a psychiatric hospital more than a year ago.

“From the moment his ‘acute delusional puff’ proved to be short-lived, his stay in the [secure unit] was no longer medically justified,” an unnamed official told the paper. “He does not suffer from a chronic illness.”

Lawyers for the Halimi family have frequently expressed the concern that Traore will be quietly released at the discretion of his doctors. After a lower court ruled out a criminal trial for Traore in Dec. 2019, Francis Szpiner, who represents Halimi’s sister, acidly commented, “soon we’ll have the pleasure of seeing him go free.”

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