Protesters in three French cities demanded justice for Theo, a young black man who was allegedly raped with a baton while in police custody in the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois.
At least 250 people congregated in the French capital, near the underground station of Ménilmontant, for second consecutive night on 8 February. Between 300-400 people participated at a solidarity rally in Nantes, and another 200 demonstrated in Rennes. Protesters showed anger at the police, chanting "We all hate the police" and leaving "Cops, rapists, murders" written on the walls, as the newspaper Le Parisien reported.
But the outrage against the policemen accused of abusing the young man have been going on for longer, since the news of the young man's attack emerged over the weekend. The 22-year-old, who is identified in the French press using only his first name Theo, has no criminal history and is a football fan.
He was taken to a police station after an ID check escalated on 2 February, AFP reported. A source told the French news agency that video footage from the police station shows a police officer deliver "a horizontal blow with his baton to the buttocks of the young man" after his trousers "dropped to the floor by themselves".
The man said the policeman anally raped him with the baton, after being beaten by the officers and called racial slurs. He was brought to a hospital and, following a medical examination, a doctor confirmed the man had suffered "a longitudinal wound in the anal canal" and "a section of the sphincter muscle". Theo was granted a 60-day medical leave.
Four policemen were detained in connection to the alleged abuse on Monday 6 February, as the case continued to gather media attention. One of the four is charged with rape and other three are accused of voluntarily engaging in violence. Frederic Gabet, a lawyer for the officer charged with rape, argued that any injury inflicted was done accidentally.
Quoting unnamed sources, French TV channel LCI reported on 9 February that a preliminary report by the organisation overseeing French police, the IGPN, believes the violence was accidental.
"At war with the police"
The news of the attack sparked violent protests in the suburb where Theo was detained on 5 February and continued over the past five days, with some angry protesters burning a car and trying to set a bus stop on fire.
The police has so far arrested 43 people so far in connection to violent acts at the protests, including arson of police cars. Police Alliance spokesman Frederic Lagache said one officer narrowly escaped being burned when a protester set his vehicle on fire with a Molotov cocktail. "The objective is to kill cops and this is unacceptable," Lagache said in an interview with Europe-1.
Protesters claim they are targeted unfairly by the police. In August, the death of 24-year-old Adama Traore, a black man, also sparked days of protests in the Parisian subrb of Beaumont-sur-Oise. "Frankly, it's pathetic. The kid (Theo), he plays football, he's serious. He never was in trouble with the police," Sofiane Hajjobi, a 21-year-old Aulnay resident, told the Associated Press. "It's not normal. We're all frustrated. Now we're at war with the police."
From the hospital, Theo invited people to remain calm. "My town, you know that I love it very much. I would like to find it just as I left it. So guys, stop making war, be united, trust in the justice system and justice will be done," he said.
A fundraising campaign to support him and his family has received more than 700 donations so far. "Be strong Theo! France is with you! These torturers are unworthy of belonging to the police. They will be punished by justice," read one anonymous donor's message.
Politicians weighed in
French politicians, many of whom are busy campaigning for their candidates ahead of the presidential election, have also weighed in the issue. Daniel Goldberg, member of parliament from the district Seine-Saint-Denis has sided with Theo's family and demanded a response from the interior minister. "Theo's life changed when the policemen deliberately violated his dignity," he said.
The interior minister Bruno Le Roux said his thoughts were with the young man's family and that the four policemen were suspended.
Both Socialist party candidate Benoit Hamon and Emmanuel Macron expressed their solidarity with the family on Twitter: "My thoughts are for Theo and his family. We need an effective and transparent investigation. The police represents the Republic that protects. We need to restore trust urgently," said Hamon. Macron wrote he trusts justice will be done. "I have full confidence in the justice process so that Theo and his family can receive the answers they need."
Far-right candidate and Front National leader Marine Le Pen instead sided with the police as a matter of principle. In an interview with French channel LC1 on Monday 6 February she said: "I stand by the security forces, it's my basic principle."
French President Francois Hollande visited the Theo in hospital on Tuesday, 7 February, reassuring him that that justice will be done. A picture of the president with the young man, who was wearing a football T-shirt of the team Inter Milan, was shared by the Italian team's Facebook page with a promise: "We've contacted Théo to tell him that, when he's better, he is invited to the San Siro [football stadium in Milan] to wear our shirt with a smile."