Four Paris police officers questioned over death of man after chokehold arrest

French investigators have questioned four police officers over the January arrest of a Paris delivery driver who died after they allegedly pinned him to the ground as he repeatedly shouted "I'm suffocating", sources said on Monday.

Four Paris police officers questioned over death of man after chokehold arrest
Illustration photo: AFP

France has seen demonstrations in recent weeks against alleged brutality and racism by the police, a controversy that has gained resonance since protests erupted in the United States over the killing by police of George Floyd.

Cedric Chouviat, 42, had been stopped by police close to the Eiffel Tower in Paris on January 3rd for a traffic offence.

In video footage collected by investigators, he can be heard saying “I'm suffocating” seven times in 22 seconds as police hold him down, according to a report on the incident written in April, revealed on Wednesday by newspaper Le Monde and website Mediapart, which AFP has also seen.

Video footage appears to show Chouviat with the weight of the police on his torso. According to two witnesses, the delivery driver was held in a chokehold.

“Apart from the arrest, we did not notice any flagrantly violent words or noises,” said an expert who analysed footage of the incident.

“The exchange is relatively civil, even if we can sense a form of 'provocation' or 'defiance' in (Chouviat's) words,” the expert added.

According to analysis of the footage, Chouviat calls the policemen 'clowns' and one of them a 'loser' and tells them several times not to touch him.

“At 11 minutes 16 secondes (Chouviat) tells the policeman that he's a 'fool'. The officer decides to arrest him,” said the expert.

“In the next 22 seconds we can hear different sounds we cannot identify. The arrested person says several times 'I'm suffocating'. And we can hear one of the policemen say 'All good, all good, cuffs on.'”

Chouviat's plea echoes Floyd's last words “I can't breathe”, which have rallied protesters across the world.

Father of five Chouviat died in hospital two days after the arrest from asphyxia, with “a fracture to the larynx”, according to elements of the autopsy released by Paris prosecutors.

Prosecutors have opened a case for “involuntary homicide”.

None of the policemen involved has been suspended, and their lawyer Thibault de Montbrial declined to comment.

The police watchdog in charge of the investigation has transferred its findings to investigating magistrates who will now decide whether the four officers will be charged.

Chouviat's family has condemned what they term an act of unjustified police violence caused by what they said were “dangerous” restraint techniques.

His death came after that in 2016 of a young black man, Adama Traore, after he was similarly pinned to the ground with the combined body weight of three arresting officers, according to the testimony of one of them.

Following recent demonstrations against alleged police brutality, which young black and Arab men say is often directed at them, the French government this month announced the ban of the chokehold technique which critics say is too often deadly.

But a few days later, the government backtracked after a backlash by police unions, who demonstrated across France, throwing their handcuffs on the ground in protest.

In the days following Chouviat's death, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner promised sanctions against officers “if wrongdoings are established”.

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French minister apologises for Champions League chaos

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Tuesday made a partial apology for chaos at last month's Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool in Paris, while insisting fake tickets and "delinquency" were mostly to blame.

French minister apologises for Champions League chaos

“Should things have been managed better at the Stade de France (stadium)? The answer is yes. Am I partly responsible? The answer is yes,” Darmanin told RTL radio.

“Of course, I readily apologise towards everyone who suffered from this bad management of the event,” he added.

After scenes of fans crowded into tight spaces and being tear-gassed by police caused outrage around Europe, Darmanin poured fuel on the fire by blaming supporters with fake tickets for the disruption.

UEFA events director Martin Kallen last week told French senators investigating the fiasco that the football body’s count of fake tickets was far short of the tens of thousands claimed by French authorities.

“We don’t believe it’s the number mentioned in France,” he said, adding that 2,600 fake tickets were identified at turnstiles — compared with the number of 30,000 to 40,000 people with fake tickets and without tickets suggested by Darmanin.

“It was a question of fake tickets… that created the difficulties we all know about” of large crowds of fans packed into underpasses or outside locked gates, Darmanin insisted Tuesday.

He added that “if there was something that went wrong at the Stade de France, it was the fight against delinquency”, saying he had already ordered a reorganisation of policing around the venue and that three major matches since had passed without incident.

While some supporters did report being victims of crime by gangs of youths before and after the match, there were also many complaints about police treatment of fans.

Disabled Liverpool fans last week told the Senate how officers sprayed tear gas at people in wheelchairs.

The English supporters have reacted with particular fury to Darmanin’s defence of the French police’s actions.

“People’s memories will forever be tarred by the lack of organisation and heavy-handed policing, and then of course the way authorities tried to deflect blame and scapegoat Liverpool fans for their incompetence,” Liverpool mayor Steve Rotheram told AFP earlier this month.

CCTV footage from around the stadium has also been deleted despite the Senate probe.

A government report published earlier this month said a “chain of failures” by French authorities has inflicted “severe damage” on the image of the country as it prepares to host the Olympic Games in 2024.