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What is France's 'Affaire Théo'?

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
What is France's 'Affaire Théo'?
Frenchman Theo Luhaka, 28, who was assaulted with a police baton after an identity check, during the first day of the trial of three Seine-Saint-Denis police officers before the Assizes court in Bobigny, near Paris on January 9, 2024. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP)

The 'Affaire Théo' - one of France's most notorious and long-running police brutality cases - has once again made the headlines. But what is it and what exactly happened?

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L'Affaire Théo is the long-running legal battle related to the violent assault of a Black man in Paris suburbs in February 2017.

Théo was sodomised by a police baton after being stopped for a routine ID check and was so severely injured that he is now permanently disabled.

Seven years on, no officer has been convicted in relation to the incident, and several of those involved are still working in policing.

The Théo case is one of several high-profile incidents of police brutality, including the death of 17-year-old Nahel M, who was killed in a police traffic stop outside Paris last summer.

What happened?

22-year-old Théodore (Théo) Luhaka was walking through a housing estate in the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois with a group of others when four police officers stopped him for a routine ID check.

READ MORE: France 'must address deep racism in police', says UN

The situation quickly deteriorated: Théo was assaulted by the officers, and suffered severe anal injuries from a police baton, as well as wounds to his head and face. 

Théo had hopes of becoming a professional football player in Belgium and was at the time a community educator and mentor. He did not have any criminal record.

The young man said he had been with a group of other young men while on the way to see a friend of his sister when he was ordered by police officers to stand against the wall for a pat-down and identity check.

In his version of events, one of the young men questioned the officer, asking why he was being threatened with a hefty fine. In response, the officer allegedly slapped the man. Théo said that he came to the victim's defence, and in return, he was sprayed with teargas and hit by police, receiving anal injuries from the police baton.

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The police officers' initial version of the story is somewhat different - they claim to Théo violently intervened while the unit was trying to arrest a drug dealer and that Théo was only assaulted after having punched an officer in the face.

Théo needed emergency surgery due to severe rectal injuries and rectal perforation. A 2019 medical report later found that his injuries would require life-long treatment, having left him incontinent.

Police initially said that the injuries were an accident - that Théo's baggy trousers fell down during the scuffle and the officer had been intending to hit him on the leg with the baton.

However AFP reported that the officer's lawyer argued during the 2024 court proceedings that his client "performed a move taught at the (police) academy... to help two colleagues in trouble faced with a strong young man who was rebelling, and never intended to injure" him.

What happened afterwards?

The incident was filmed by a neighbour, and the images were quickly shared across social media, causing uproar, riots and protests across the country.

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Five days after the assault, then-President François Hollande visited Théo in the hospital, urging calm and unity in the nation.

Stars like Vincent Cassel and Omar Sy expressed support for the 22-year-old.

What happened to the officers?

The four officers involved in the incident were charged three days later by Bobigny public prosecutor's office as part of an investigation into 'intentional violence by people holding public authority'. 

However, a long drawn-out legal process means that none have been convicted over the incident.

CCTV footage, which became public in 2018, captured portions of the event, including officers approaching the group initially, some of the chaos that ensued, and eventually Théo being falling to the ground after being assaulted with the baton.

In 2020, the judge involved in the initial investigation referred three of the officers to the 'cours assises' (France's criminal court that deals with serious crimes including murder and rape) for "intentional violence resulting in mutilation or permanent disability”.

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The judge also dismissed the charge of rape against the officer who had penetrated Théo with the baton, claiming that the blow from the baton had been "delivered voluntarily" but that it did not meet legal requirements to be characterised as rape. The magistrate at the time said: "No comments with a sexual connotation were made by the arresting police officers, which Théodore Luhaka himself confirmed."

Marc-Antoine C, the officer accused of penetrating Théo with the baton, if convicted risks up to 15 years in prison for inflicting a permanent disability.

The other two officers risk shorter sentences of seven (Tony H) and 10 years (Jérémie D).

As for the fourth officer who was involved, who allegedly kicked Théo two to three times - the 2020 investigation found that his involvement "did not constitute illegitimate violence".

The officers were initially prohibited from working as police or in security-related professions, however officer Tony H. was able to rejoin the station in the reception service, while Jérémie D, was suspended for two years and then moved to the south-west, where he continued policing, according to Franceinfo.

Marc-Antoine C has been providing “administration support” at the Ministry of the Interior since September 2019, French media reported.

The French police oversight body IPGN separately concluded there had been a "disproportionate use of force" in the incident, and that the two violent baton blows were inflicted at a time when "Luhaka was not attacking the physical integrity of the police officers".

What happened to Théo?

The former athlete is permenently disabled and says he has resigned himself to spending most of his time at home, watching television.

"I avoid eating when I go out. No food, no incontinence (...) I died that day. 

"Whatever I do, I will always be the person who was raped by police officers."

Why is the 'Affaire Théo' in the news right now?

Because three of the officers involved are currently on trial, and the verdict is expected on January 19th.

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