PARIS – The French police arrested late Thursday night most of the members of the gang that abducted, tortured and murdered Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jew from Paris.
Hundreds of SWAT officers raided apartments in Bagneux and arrested 12 people. Another suspect was arrested in Belgium.
“They acted with indescribable cruelty,” the judiciary police chief leading the investigation said. “They kept him naked and tied up for weeks. They cut him and in the end poured flammable liquid on him and set him alight.”
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While the citizens of France were shocked by the unbridled violence of the gang, Halimi’s family claims that the murder was motivated by anti-Semitism.
“We think there is anti-Semitism in this affair,” Rafi Halimi, Ilan’s uncle, told the press.
“First, because the killers tried to kidnap at least two other Jews, and second, because of what they said on the phone,” Rafi Halimi added. “When we said we didn’t have 500,000 euros to give them they told us to go to the synagogue and get it,” Rafi said. “They also recited verses from the Koran.”
But the Paris public prosecutor, Jean-Claude Marin, told Parisian Jewish radio on Thursday that “no element of the current investigation could link this murder to an anti-Semitic declaration or action.” The umbrella group of French Jewish secular organizations, CRIF, issued a statement Friday calling on the Jewish community “to keep calm, cautious and wait for developments in the investigation.”
Ilan Halimi’s family points to the behavior of the kidnappers in their ransom negotiations, which began a few days after Ilan disappeared. Halimi was abducted on January 21 after a woman came into the mobile phone store where he worked and charmed him into a dinner date. The woman had been sent by the gang, which calls itself “The Barbarians.” A police source said the gang is a group of childhood friends who grew up in Bagneux, a suburb south of Paris. The gang includes Muslims of North African descent and is headed by Youssef Fofana, who has escaped police capture so far. According to Marin, the gang had made six similar abduction attempts in the past.
After overpowering Halimi, the gang brought him to an apartment in a high-rise in Bagneux. They contacted Halimi’s family and over the next three weeks demanded ransoms ranging from 300,000 to 500,000 euros. According to reports, at one point they agreed upon a deal and set a meeting place but the kidnappers backed out and eventually ended contact.
A source in the Jewish community said the gang’s behavior suggested that the motive behind the kidnapping was violence for its own sake, particularly against Jews.
“Why didn’t they release him when the realized the family couldn’t pay ransom?” asked Sami Gazlan, who is responsible for security in the Jewish community.
Last Monday, a few days after the kidnappers ended contact with the family, Ilan was found near a suburban train station south of Paris, naked, handcuffed and gagged, with burns covering 80 percent of his body. He died on the way to the hospital.
The first break in the case came on Thursday after the police released an Identikit image of the woman suspected of “baiting” Halimi. The woman turned herself in out of fears that neighbors would identify her, and identified the apartment where Halimi had been kept.
The store where Halimi had worked was closed Saturday. Several shops in the area, the 11th arondissement, were closed on Friday, with signs explaining that it was a gesture of sympathy for Halimi’s family. Many of the shopkeepers were among the 1,000 or so people who attended Ilan Halimi’s funeral in the Pantin cemetery.
Dozens of family members returned home, in the 12th arondissement, to begin sitting shiva after the funeral. Walking back, accompanied by police officers, relatives expressed their shock at the murder.
“We are in total shock,” a close friend of Ilan’s said Saturday. “All of us, Ilan’s mother especially, have not yet begun to comprehend what happened.”