A Muslim man suspected in the violent murder of an elderly French-Jewish woman in Paris in early April may not face murder charges, as claims that he was not in his right mind when he committed the act are being considered.
The suspect has been hospitalized for psychiatric evaluation since his arrest for the murder of Sarah Halimi, 66, on April 4. His name has not been released but he is known to be a 27-year-old African Muslim and a neighbor of the victim.
Halimi was beaten severely before the suspect pushed her to her death out of the window of her apartment on Vaucouleurs Street in the heavily Muslim 11th district of Paris, considered a crime-ridden area.
His lawyer, Thomas Bidnic, told AFP on Wednesday that there was a strong chance he would not be held “criminally responsible” for the murder. The lawyer based this assessment on the medical advice of the suspect’s examiners.
Judicial experts will now need to determine whether the insanity claims are valid.
The case has riled the Jewish community in France, with some members angry at the police for how it handled the attack and for treating the murder as a possible act of insanity. Community members say it was a hate crime and an act of murder with anti-Semitism and torture as aggravating circumstances. Halimi’s family has demanded it be considered a terror attack.
Halimi’s family and lawyers have also taken on the press for remaining largely silent on the matter, not reporting the details and appearing to treat it as another criminal murder until just recently.
In a press conference last week, a lawyer of the victim’s family revealed the tragic details of her death and the moments leading up to the murder, suggesting the suspect may have undergone radicalization while in prison for drug-related crimes and while attending a salafist mosque nearby when on probation.
The Halimi family lawyer, Jean-Alexandre Buchinger, recounted that the attack began at 4:25 a.m. on the morning of April 4 when the suspect, who lives with his family in a building neighboring Halimi’s, forced his way into her apartment through the residence of his neighbors, a family originally from Mali.
The suspect knocked on their door and forced his way in, appearing so aggressive and agitated and murmuring Koranic verses, that they all locked themselves in a bedroom and called the police. The suspect made his way to Halimi’s apartment through their balcony.
“He surprised her in her sleep, he beat her with fists. Her living room was full of blood, just to inform you how hard the blows were,” said Buchinger at the press conference on May 22.
The suspect shouted “Allahu Akbar” and recited Quranic verses while assaulting Halimi, and trying to strangle her, the lawyer said, adding that the suspect also yelled at Halimi to “shut her mouth” and called her a “sheitan” [devil or satan in Arabic].
Police arrived just 3 minutes after the call, but made their way to the wrong building at first. Meanwhile, another neighbor placed a call to police at 4:45 a.m. to report the beating of Halimi. More officers arrived and congregated in the apartment of the Malian family next door, afraid they were facing a terror attack and waiting for the anti-terror squad. By the time the special unit arrived, around 5:00 a.m., Halimi had been killed.
The suspect returned to the apartment of the Malian family and was arrested there without resistance at 5:35 a.m., according to the report.
A homicide investigation was opened with police on April 14, without the anti-Semitism aspect. A judicial source told AFP that “it has not yet been established that the suspect knew the victim’s religion.”
That remark contradicts earlier reports by relatives of Halimi who said that she had previously experienced anti-Semitic harassment by the suspect and a relative of his.
A second lawyer for the family said the fact that the suspect did not assault any other neighbors during the attack and made his way directly “to the only Jewish woman in the building, breaking into an apartment to access hers, shows premeditation.”
“He has the profile of a radicalized Islamist; the psychiatry [behind it] is secondary,” said a lawyer of Halimi’s sister, Gilles-William Goldnadel.
There were conflicting reports on whether the suspect’s family acknowledged any radicalization, but Bidnic said they “perfectly understand the gravity” of what he has been accused of.
The Halimi family lawyers also criticized police handling of the attack, questioning why it took an hour and 10 minutes to apprehend the suspect, and suggesting a nation and police force on edge since a series of deadly Islamist attacks in recent years.
A number of French-Jewish organizations, including the Consistoire and CRIF, the umbrella group of French Jewish communities, announced their intention to join a civil suit in the case.
Halimi is survived by her son, who lives in Israel, and two daughters who live in France. She was buried in Jerusalem on April 6.