In France, Perpetrators of anti-Semitic Attacks Claim Insanity to Elude Justice

The mental illness defense has become more prevalent when it comes to hate crimes in France. And it seems to be working

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
A French soldier patrols next to a Jewish school, in Paris, following three days of bloodshed in the city, Jan. 13, 2015.
A French soldier patrols next to a Jewish school, in Paris, following three days of bloodshed in the city, Jan. 13, 2015. Credit: AP
Shirli Sitbon.
Shirli Sitbon
Shirli Sitbon.
Shirli Sitbon

The first time it happened was shortly after midnight on November 20, 2003. A 23-year-old Jewish man was lured into the underground parking lot of his building by a neighbor, who then savagely murdered him. Afterward, the killer crowed that he would go to heaven for killing a Jew; according to the police report, he later told officers, “If he’s dead, I’m so happy, that f****** Jew, that dirty Jew.”

The victim was Sebastien Selam, a successful DJ known as Lam C, a rising star in the Paris nightclub scene. His killer, a long-time neighbor and friend named Adel Amastaibou, had a history of mental illness and was reportedly a heavy drug user. It was the first time in decades that what was seen by some to be an anti-Semitic murder had been carried out in France by a man who was psychologically disturbed. Since then, however, a number of hate crimes have been attributed to people suffering from mental illness.

Sebastien’s widowed mother, Juliette, who still lives in the same low-income housing project in the 10th arrondissement, keeps revisiting the events of that night 16 years ago this week.

“On the night Sebastien was killed, hundreds of young people were outside the building. Sebastien’s friends were in shock. He had so many friends of all backgrounds,” she recalls at her home. “I wanted to go downstairs and see my son, but the police wouldn’t let me. What the killer had done to him was too horrible.”

Some members of the Jewish community, including the Selam family, believed Sebastien’s brutal murder – which involved his being stabbed repeatedly with both a knife and a fork – was an anti-Semitic act, part of a new wave of anti-Semitism that had started in 2000. It and some of the incidents that followed were later referred to as evidence of a “new Judeophobia” by France’s Human Rights Commission.

However, there were many people, including leaders of the local Jewish community, who did not see Amastaibou’s act as anti-Semitic, because he had a history of mental illness and was quickly declared unfit to stand trial. When Selam’s mother and brother approached these local individuals, asking that they help bring the killer to justice – they were ignored. (Amastaibou was hospitalized and eventually released. In 2009, his case was examined again, but the legal authorities again concluded that he could not be tried for his acts.)

Some experts say that a murder carried out by a person suffering from an outburst of delirium cannot, by definition, be called a hate crime. “A crime has one major contributing factor,” says Dr. Marc Sageman, a U.S.-based forensic psychiatrist and terrorism researcher. “A killer can be anti-Semitic and unstable, but when he commits a murder, the major contributing factor to the crime is either his instability or hatred.”

Today, though, 16 years after Sebastien’s murder, Jewish leaders in France look back on the act as anti-Semitic. “We made a mistake at the time. We should have stood by Mrs. Selam,” says Francis Kalifat, head of CRIF, the principal Jewish umbrella organization in the country. “Our organization didn’t realize this was an anti-Semitic murder because we had experienced nothing like it in previous decades. Before Sebastien Selam’s killing, the level of anti-Semitism was lower: some 50 to 60 incidents per year.”

In 2018, 541 anti-Semitic acts were registered in France. Now, Kalifat tells Haaretz, “We ask the authorities: ‘Why should a murder committed by an allegedly unstable person not be considered anti-Semitic?’” One can also reasonably ask what sort of preventive measures can be employed to anticipate and possibly prevent such crimes.

In the United States, suspects claiming to having been insane at the time of a crime will still go to trial, where they can plead insanity and eventually be acquitted. But in France, suspects whom psychiatric experts deem to be legally unaccountable for their actions cannot be tried. Instead they are hospitalized for as long as their doctors believe they are a danger to themselves or society.

The process of clarifying whether they are indeed mentally ill is different as well: A source at France’s Justice Ministry told Haaretz that psychiatrists are told only what defendants are suspected of, but have no access to suspects’ files or cases, and only a limited time to examine them.

After being declared unfit to stand trial because he was schizophrenic, Sebastien’s killer was hospitalized. When he received furloughs from his mental institution on weekends, the Selams had to face him in their building. On top of that, they had to face rumors, made-up stories about Sebastien meant to explain why his being Jewish was not the reason he was murdered. One story was that he was gay and his killer was his jealous lover.

Some experts say that a murder carried out by a person suffering from an outburst of delirium cannot, by definition, be called a hate crime.

“My other son and I were all alone. My husband died before this tragedy,” says Juliette. “We gave all of our savings to lawyers to try to get this to court, unsuccessfully. Some lawyers told me straight out: ‘Mrs. Selam, there’s nothing to do about it; they’ve put a lid on this case.’”

In 2006 a court dismissed the case because several court-appointed experts said that Amastaibou was not in control of himself at the time of the killing. But since then, there has been some progress.

Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron recognized Sebastien’s murder as an anti-Semitic act – after Jewish lawmaker Meyer Habib wrote to him about the case. On May 22, 2018, Macron wrote, in response to Habib: “The memory of this young French man killed by the darkest fanatic ideology is still vivid. Know that his memory lives on in our national community, which is profoundly affected by anti-Semitic crimes like the one perpetrated against Sebastien Selam.”

In the last 16 years, France as a whole and its Jewish community in particular have witnessed several ostensible hate crimes committed by attackers who were diagnosed as mentally unsound. But the issue has not been addressed on the legislative or regulatory level. The Interior Ministry’s statistics department reports that it hasn’t specifically examined hate crimes carried out by mentally disturbed people. Moreover, Frederic Potier, head of the government’s Interministerial Delegation to the Fight Against Racism, Anti-Semitism and Anti-LGBT Hate, aka DILCRAH, says his organization has not conducted any research into those cases either.

However, the government and intelligence services do seem to be concerned by the terror threat posed by people with psychiatric disorders. France’s General Directorate for Internal Security, for example, has studied the connection between terrorism and mental illness. The BFM cable news channel revealed in September 2018 that the agency analyzed terrorist attacks in France between 2010 and 2016, and found that 30 percent of the 71 people who carried them out were deemed to be psychologically unfit to stand trial. Some of the attacks were also classified as hate crimes, like the assaults on four Jews in Marseille in two separate incidents in October 2015 and January 2016, and the attacks on Jews in Strasbourg in 2010 and again in August 2016.

“In all likelihood, the reason that there are no statistics about hate crimes that are carried out by mentally unstable attackers is because they’re all committed under different circumstances,” according to Michel Aubouin, a former local police commissioner and longtime official in the interior ministry. “Intelligence services have been working on the profiles of those carrying out the most serious crimes, but it’s difficult to analyze results or come up with ways to counter the phenomenon without clear definitions from psychiatrists.”

When Selam's killer received furloughs from his mental institution on weekends, the victim's family had to face him in their building.

The problem is more than one involving hatred, anti-Semitism or terrorism. Health professionals believe that many people with mental illness aren’t getting proper treatment. First and foremost, some French experts say, those in the greatest danger are the ones who are sick. For one, Prof. Michel Lejoyeux of Paris’ Bichat-Claude Bernard Hospital has urged government authorities to at least start evaluating how many at-risk people are not being treated.

Still, psychiatrists generally oppose the use by government authorities of medical information to identify potential attackers. On May 6, 2019, however, the French government authorized domestic security services to flag mental patients who have been both institutionalized and identified as potential extremists. “This decree strengthens an old prejudice that links mental illness and dangerousness,” according to a statement from two organizations that represent hospital psychiatrists in the country.

Although the proportion of unstable individuals who are violent is small compared to the tens of thousands of citizens who suffer from mental illness overall, the phenomenon does exist.

“One explanation is the fact that extremist ideology and hatred are spreading in all of society, including among those who are psychologically unstable,” says Potier, of DILCRAH, the anti-racism body. “Not all unbalanced people commit hate crimes, but all hate crimes are carried out by people who have been surrounded by an ideology of hatred.”

Some experts point a finger at government policy vis-a-vis psychiatric patients for the involvement of the latter in hate crimes. “One explanation is that authorities have, for financial reasons, shut down local mental institutions that had allowed people to seek help. Now, many unstable sick people are not being treated properly,” says Jean-Yves Camus, an expert in radicalization and extremist movements. “There is also a willingness among some psychologically unstable people to replicate attacks they have seen in the news.”

“It’s a question of potentiality. When people watch the news and hear about attacks, it becomes an option in their mind. And they may be driven to replicate the attack. People think this can be predicted, but it can’t,” says Sageman, the American psychiatrist.

Jews are not the only victims of hate crimes committed by people who are mentally ill. The fear of such incidents, for example, was voiced in late July during a protest following the murder of Mamoudou Barry in the city of Rouen, in northern France. Barry, who was born in Guinea and had just completed a doctorate in law, was insulted by a man as he getting into his car with his wife and toddler. When Barry asked him why he shouted racist epithets at them, the man beat him to death. Authorities later said the attacker had a history of mental illness.

“A history of mental illness? They’re not going to pull this trick on us again!” said Fatimata Konaté, one of hundreds of participants at the Paris protest against Barry’s killing. “We don’t believe he’s unstable. If he’s really sick, why didn’t he kill his own wife and his child? Why did he attack a black family with these insults? The state must take responsibility and make the streets safe again!”

“There is no question this attack is racist!” Dominique Sopo, the president of SOS Racism, a French anti-racist nongovernment organization, told the protesters.

Delirious state

In the Jewish community, few are interested in theories that explain the connection between hate-driven attacks and mental illness.

Mohamed Merah, the gunman who killed a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse, as well as three soldiers, in 2012.Credit: AP

“Whether committed by stable or so-called unstable people, these are anti-Semitic attacks, and the authorities should fight them relentlessly,” says Kalifat, of CRIF. “Any attacker can now be diagnosed as unaccountable [for his actions]. If Mohamed Merah [the gunman who killed a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse, as well as three soldiers, in 2012] had not died in a shoot-out with police, would he too have been declared unaccountable, and unfit for trial?”

Lawyers from the community have donated some of their time to bringing cases of anti-Semitic assaults to trial. A group calling itself the European Jewish Organization (OJE) has even set up a legal branch in Paris dedicated to representing victims of anti-Semitic assaults, including those in which the attackers pleaded insanity.

OJE’s president, Muriel Ouaknine Melki, has been working on a case that is still making waves: the murder of Sarah Halimi in Paris in April 2017. Halimi, a 65-year-old retired physician and kindergarten director, was killed by her neighbor, who savagely beat her and threw her off her balcony.

Twenty-seven-year-old Mali-born Kobili Traore broke into Halimi’s home by climbing over the balcony of a neighboring apartment. Witnesses said he shouted “Allahu akbar” a dozen times and called “Halimi sheitan” – Satan, in Arabic. Neighbors also heard him recite verses from the Koran.

“The police report shows my sister was tortured for almost one hour. He beat her savagely,” the victim’s brother, William Attal, tells Haaretz.

Traore – who was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility after the murder – had a criminal record with repeated convictions for violence, theft and drug trafficking, had smoked a significant amount of cannabis that day and said he had suffered a lapse of judgment. But he had no history of mental illness.

After three conflicting psychiatric evaluations, including one saying the killer suffered from a psychosis that was triggered after he saw a Hebrew Bible, the judges in the case decided he shouldn’t be put on trial since, they concluded, he didn’t understand what he was doing.

France has authorized domestic security services to flag mental patients who have been both institutionalized and identified as potential extremists.

Defense lawyer Thomas Bidnic said in a public statement that the decision made complete sense: “We have always said that our client’s judgment was not functioning. We’re now waiting for the final hearing at the appeals court to receive final confirmation that he is criminally irresponsible.”

Yet one of France’s leading psychiatric experts, Daniel Zagury, who also examined Traore, said he was fit to stand trial because his judgment had been only partially affected, and thus he could still be held legally responsible for his acts. Zagury wrote that the killer’s mad state was not incompatible with anti-Semitism, noting that “his crime was a mad and anti-Semitic act.”

The prosecution and Halimi’s family insist that Traore was aware of what he was doing that night. “He visited the apartment next door earlier that day, probably to check if my sister’s window was open so he could break into her home later on,” says Attal. “Before throwing my sister off the balcony, he carried her to the part where her fall would be the longest, so as to be certain that she died. While he was doing that, he pretended he was trying to save her, shouting, ‘A woman is trying to jump,’ and then he threw her down. Many neighbors witnessed this.” The victim’s family believes it should be up to a jury to decide whether Traore was responsible or not. An appeals chamber will examine the case in late November.

Some in France believe that when it comes to violent hate crimes or terror, a defense of mental illness is invoked more today than it was a decade ago. Is this a false impression due to the fact that society now pays more attention to hate crimes? Or are people suffering from mental illness really committing more crimes than before?

Sageman, the psychiatrist: “There have always been attacks committed by unstable people throughout history. Some of those attacks were hate crimes. Before attacks on Jews intensified, Arabs were the targets of assaults carried out by stable and unstable attackers.”

For her part, however, Ouaknine Melki says that in recent years, although some of the perpetrators of anti-Semitic assaults have pleaded insanity, she believes they were perfectly sane.

“Sebastien Selam’s killing probably inspired some people [to launch copy-cat attacks],” she says. “Suspects play that card now. We have worked on several such cases.” But there is no study, no report or statistics about those types of attacks.

“Two years ago we had a case where three minors carried out an attack and two pleaded insanity. Two psychiatric evaluations said their case was borderline. It took us two years to get recognition that their motive was anti-Semitic,” she adds.

Aubouin, the former police commissioner, agrees that pleading insanity has become a strategy. “Many lawyers assert that their clients are psychologically unfit, and that strategy pretty often pays off,” he says.

Aren’t French psychiatrists professionals who can tell whether someone is simulating a psychiatric disorder in order to avoid trial?

Sageman doesn’t think so. “In France, court expertise is basically worthless. Experts spend up to an hour examining the suspect. They don’t have the files and can be fooled more easily. In the United States, psychiatrists have access to the files and they spend dozens of hours with the suspect. It’s a different type of expertise.”

In April, 39 public figures in France, including Aubouin, philosophers Alain Finkielkraut and Elisabeth Badinter, historians and psychiatrists, published an opinion piece in the daily newspaper Le Figaro. “Is psychiatrization the new tool being used to deny reality?” they asked.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


From the cover of 'Shmutz.'

'There Are Similarities Between the Hasidic Community and Pornography’

A scene from Netflix's "RRR."

‘RRR’: If Cocaine Were a Movie, It Would Look Like This

Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid's Journey: From Late-night Host to Israel's Next Prime Minister

Lake Kinneret. The high water level created lagoons at the northern end of the lake.

Lake Kinneret as You’ve Never Experienced It Before

An anti-abortion protester holds a cross in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Roe v. Wade: The Supreme Court Leaves a Barely United States

Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid Is the Most Israeli of All