French police under new scrutiny after chokehold death

Cedric Chouviat's son, Ryan Chouviat (centre), speaks during a press conference in Paris on June 23, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - France's police faced new pressure on Tuesday (June 23) after the family of a delivery man who died after being arrested last January demanded a ban on chokeholds.

Cedric Chouviat got into a heated exchange with police after being stopped for a routine check near the Eiffel Tower in Paris before he was pinned down by several officers.

Chouviat, who has North African origins, said "I'm suffocating" seven times before his body went limp, according to a review of videos by investigators seen by AFP this week.

He was not breathing and had no pulse when emergency services arrived and brought him to hospital, where he was pronounced dead two days later.

Four officers were taken in for questioning last week in an inquiry into "involuntary homicide" but so far they have not faced disciplinary action.

"We still don't understand why they haven't been suspended, and we don't understand why this chokehold technique still hasn't been banned," Chouviat's daughter Sofia said at a press conference alongside her family and lawyers.

"We want a firm response from President Emmanuel Macron," she said.

France has seen a series of protests in recent weeks against alleged brutality and racism by police, a long-simmering issue that has gained momentum with the killing of George Floyd in police custody in the US.

The protests have focused in particular on the case of a young black man, Adama Traore, who died in police custody in 2016 in a Paris suburb. An investigation is still going on.

"France is not the United States, but France is becoming like the United States," said William Bourdon, a lawyer for Chouviat's family.


Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced officers would be banned from using chokeholds earlier this month but backtracked after police unions held demonstrations across France.

Castaner later said chokeholds would continue to be used at least through the summer while officials sought alternative techniques.

"It's too late for Cedric, but this is a good opportunity for the government to stop giving in to police unions' blackmail and question things," said Chouviat's widow, Doria.

Lawyers for the four officers said their clients did not hear the words "I'm suffocating", which they learnt about only while being questioned last week.

"The officers were shocked and devastated, because obviously if they had heard these words they would have stopped struggling immediately," police lawyer Thibault de Montbrial told journalists on Tuesday.

The officers will be brought before a judge in July.

France's police watchdog said this month it received almost 1,500 complaints against officers last year, of which roughly half were for alleged violence against civilians.

On Tuesday, a court handed a suspended 18-month sentence to a police officer who struck a 62-year-old woman during a "yellow vest" anti-government protest last year.

In a scene captured by surveillance video, the officer hits the woman with his baton twice on the back of her head, causing injuries that required 12 stitches.

Also on Tuesday, four riot police were to be brought before a judge after being detained for questioning over alleged violence against protesters in a fast food restaurant during a yellow vest demo near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, a judicial source told AFP.

Several journalists were in the restaurant as well and filmed officers striking people even as they lay immobile on the ground.

After the hearing, the investigating magistrate charged the four with committing violence while in a position of public authority. Their lawyer declined to comment.

Critics accused police of heavy-handed tactics during many of the yellow vest protests including the use of rubber bullets that caused severe eye injuries for around two dozen people, and explosive stun grenades to disperse protesters.

Only a handful of officers have faced trial over the claims.

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