Corsican nationalist dies after assault in French prison

The Corsican nationalist Yvan Colonna, who was assaulted earlier this month in prison in an attack that sparked rioting on the French Mediterranean island, has died, his family announced on Monday.

Corsican nationalist dies after assault in French prison
Protesters on Corsica hold a banner showing the face of Yvan Colonna. Photo by Pascal POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP)

Colonna, who had been jailed for life over the murder in 1998 of Corsica’s top regional official, died in the evening in hospital in the southern French city of Marseille, his lawyer Patrice Spinosi told AFP on behalf of the family.

A police source, who asked not to be named, also confirmed to AFP that Colonna, 61, had died.

“The family requests that its grief is respected and will be making no comment,” Spinosi added.

One of France’s most prominent prisoners, Colonna was left in a coma after being beaten on March 2nd in jail in the southern French city of Arles by a fellow detainee serving time for terror offences.

The incident stoked anger on the island, where some still see Colonna as a hero in a fight for independence, and sparked the worst clashes for years between protesters and police.

Colonna was arrested in 2003 after a five-year manhunt that eventually found him living as a shepherd in the Corsican mountains.

He was then sentenced to life for the assassination in 1998 of Corsica’s Préfet Claude Erignac.

In a bid to dampen local anger over his prison assault, the French judiciary on March 17th suspended Colonna’s prison sentence for medical reasons.

In a surprise move, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin also said in a newspaper interview last week that the government could be prepared to offer Corsica autonomy.

President Emmanuel Macron then said that the issue of autonomy of Corsica should not be a “taboo debate”.

But he added there must be an end to the unrest before a discussion gets underway. “It is a debate that cannot take place until there is absolute calm,” he said.

Darmanin’s comments and subsequent visit to Corsica had helped ease tensions and it remains to be seen how nationalists will react to his death.

Supporters of Colonna had long urged his release or at least transfer to a prison in Corsica from mainland France but it was only after the assault that the government began to take steps in this direction.

Corsica’s pro-autonomy regional council president, Gilles Simeoni, told AFP that Darmanin’s proposals were “important words that open up prospects, but they ought now to be extended and firmed up.”

The National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC), which carried out deadly attacks for decades before laying down its arms in 2014, warned earlier this month that it could resume its fight if Paris remains in a state of “contemptuous denial.”

Corsica, the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, has become a firm favourite of well-heeled French tourists with its pristine beaches but has also been mired in internal problems.

Many Corsicans are frustrated that a reform of the island’s status has been on ice since 2018, with many demanding increased control over fiscal policy and hiring policies, and the expanded use of the Corsican language.

The debate on the issue has intensified at a hugely sensitive moment, with France preparing for April presidential elections and the right warning Macron not to give an inch on the island’s French identity.

Talks on autonomy will begin in April and should be wrapped up by the end of this year, according to a memorandum agreed by Darmanin and Simeoni.

Colonna’s assailant Franck Elong Abe, who had been jailed for terror-related offences, has been charged with another terror offence for the attack on Colonna.

Prosecutors have said he attacked his fellow inmate after being angered by his “blaspheming” and alleged mocking of the prophet Mohammed.

Investigators said Abe attacked Colonna while he was working out in the prison gym by pulling a bag over his head and strangling him.

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Pressure mounts on France’s new disabilities minister to resign over rape allegations

French President Emmanuel Macron's newly appointed disabilities minister was facing mounting pressure to resign on Monday after the emergence of rape allegations from over a decade ago.

Pressure mounts on France's new disabilities minister to resign over rape allegations

The accusations against Damien Abad, which he denies, are a major headache for Macron and his new Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne as they seek to keep political momentum after his April presidential poll victory and ahead of June parliamentary elections.

They also come after several politicians running for parliament stepped down in recent weeks over alleged violence against women.

The appointment of Abad as minister for solidarities and people with disabilities in a reshuffle on Friday was seen as a major coup for Macron, as the 42-year-old had defected from the right wing opposition.

READ ALSO Who’s who in France’s new government 

But the next day, the Mediapart news site reported a politics watchdog group created by members of France’s MeToo movement had informed prosecutors as well as Macron’s LREM party of rape claims against Abad by two women in 2010 and 2011.

The government’s new spokeswoman Olivia Gregoire on Monday denied that Macron and his government were aware of the allegations when Abad had been appointed.

One of the women told Mediapart that in 2010 she blacked out after accepting a glass of champagne and woke up in her underwear in pain with Abad in a hotel room, and believes she may have been drugged.

She has not filed an official complaint, but prosecutors are looking into the case following a report filed by the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics.

The other woman, named only as Margaux, said that her sexual encounter with Abad in 2011 began as consensual, but accuses him of then forcing anal sex on her.

The report said she informed the police in 2012 but then declined to formally make a complaint, and her subsequent claim in 2017 was later dismissed by prosecutors.

“I’m relieved that it’s come out, because I knocked on quite a few doors so that someone would do something after the case was dismissed, as I thought it was unfair,” Margaux told AFP on Sunday.

“A lot of people knew but some preferred to look away rather than ask more questions,” she added.

Abad said in a statement he contested “in the strongest way” the allegations, arguing his own disability means he is incapable of sexually assaulting anyone.

The newly appointed minister has arthrogryposis, a rare condition that affects the joints, which he says means sexual relations can only occur with the help of a partner.

The allegations overshadowed the new cabinet’s first meeting on Monday, with Gregoire facing a string of questions on the case.

“The government is with those who, following an assault or harassment, have the immense courage to speak out,” Gregoire told reporters.

She added it is up to the judicial system to establish the truth and that, to her knowledge, “no other procedure against Damien Abad is in the works”.

But politicians on the left called for his immediate resignation.

“If I were prime minister, I would tell Damien Abad: ‘I have no particular reason to believe the women are lying… While we wait for a decision from the judicial system, I wish for you not to be part of the government,'” Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure told France Inter radio.

Green politician Sandrine Rousseau also called for Abad to go.

“We need to send a loud enough message to women, that their voices count,” Rousseau told RTL radio.

Borne, herself only appointed last week in the reshuffle, said on Sunday there could be no impunity for harassment and sexual assault.

“If there is new information, if a new complaint is filed, we will draw all the consequences,” Borne said.

In 2020, Macron’s decision to appoint Gérald Darmanin as interior minister – although he was accused of rape, sexual harassment and abuse of power – drew heavy criticism, even sparking demonstrations.

Darmanin, who kept his job in the reshuffle, has denied any wrongdoing and prosecutors in January asked for the case to be dropped.