Five Marseille police officers have been detained for questioning over the death of a 27-year-old man during rioting in the French city on 1 July.
They were among 20 members of the elite Raid (Research, assistance, intervention, dissuasion) tactical unit questioned about injuries to Mohamed Bendriss during national unrest after the police shooting of a teenager in the Paris suburbs on 27 June during a traffic stop.
The public prosecutor suggested it was “probable” Bendriss died after “a violent shock to the thorax caused by a ‘flash-ball’ type projectile”, a controversial police weapon, that caused him to go into cardiac arrest.
The centre of Marseille erupted in rioting and looting in late June and July, after the death of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk in Paris.
Bendriss was reported to be riding his scooter in the city at the time of the riots. He was found dead after feeling unwell outside his mother’s house. A postmortem examination discovered traces of a chest injury believed to have been caused by the police weapon known in France as an LBD (lanceur de balle de défense) that fires large rubber bullets.
An inquiry has been opened on allegations of causing death by the “use or threat of a weapon”. A number of officers and civilians have also given evidence, the prosecutor added in a statement.
“Rioting and looting took place in the area that night but it is not possible to establish whether the victim was taking part or whether he was riding in that area,” the prosecutor said.
Kaouther Ben Mohamed, president of Angry Marseille, which organised a protest march after Nahel’s shooting, said Bendriss’s mother had said her son had not been at the riots.
The investigation comes after four Marseille police officers were officially put under investigation – the French equivalent of being charged – for violence against a man called Hedi, 22, who lost part of his skull after being reportedly beaten up by police and hit with a flash-ball.
Three of them have been released on remand, but the holding of the fourth officer in custody prompted colleagues to go on sick leave in protest. The officer admitted firing the LBD but said he did not see anyone injured.
A third investigation has been ordered after Abdelkarim Y, 22, one of Bendriss’s cousins, lost an eye after he was also hit by an LBD, on the night of 30 June.
Bendriss’s partner is expecting their second child. Her lawyer, Arié Alimi, said the rioting and looting in Marseille could not justify Bendriss and his cousin’s injuries. “It is indisputable today that neither Abdelkarim nor Mohamed committed any damage or violence,” Alimi said.