Presumed guilty: “As a youth from a Paris suburb, I was the ideal suspect”

 
Almost exactly five years ago, riots in Paris’ suburb of Villiers-Le-Bel shattered the dreams of Mara Kanté, a then-20-year-old Frenchman who hoped to make football his career. Accused of attempted homicide against a police officer, he was imprisoned for 29 months, 11 of which he spent in solitary confinement. Ultimately acquitted, the young man shares his story in a new book*. He tells FRANCE 24 more about the judicial error that wasted over two years of his life.
 
On November 25, 2007, in the Paris suburb of Villiers-le-Bel, two boys named Moushin and Laramy (15 and 16 years old, respectively) died in a collision between the motorbike they were riding and a police car. This tragic accident led to two days of violent rioting by local youths. Nearly a hundred police officers were injured — some by gunfire — and numerous businesses and public buildings were set on fire.
 
As a result of anonymous tips provided in exchange for financial rewards, 33 youths were arrested on suspicion of having participated in the riots. In July 2010, a court condemned five of the youths, including Mara Kanté, to sentences ranging between three to five years in prison for having fired on policemen. Several months later, the main witness recanted, explaining he lied in order to receive the reward promised by the police.
 
In October 2011, an appeals court acquitted two of the defendants, including Mara Kanté.
 
* “Presumed guilty”, co-authored with journalist Aurélie Foulon.
Contributors

“I kept telling myself: ‘I am innocent, so the truth will have to come out eventually’”

Mara Kanté, now 25, lives in Sarcelles , a suburb of Paris. He is currently unemployed, but intends to become a community organizer.
 
On the day that I walked into the police station [Editor’s note: on February 18, 2008] for questioning about the riots, I had no clue that I would be coming out in handcuffs. I was in police custody for 96 hours, during which I continuously proclaimed my innocence. Up until then, I had never had any dealings with the police or the legal system. I was 20 years old and had only one goal in life: to become a professional football player. In just a single day, my dream shattered into pieces.
 
The first few weeks were a nightmare. I was immediately placed in solitary confinement. For the next eleven months, I was not allowed access to schooling, sports, or any training or other type of “rehabilitation” activity. Thankfully, my family visited me and tried to comfort me.
 
“My experience could easily be turned into an edge-of-your-seat film”
 
 
I went through every single emotional stage, but never contemplated taking my life. I experienced moments of overwhelming doubt, anxiety, and fear, but I stayed strong in my head. I kept telling myself, “I am innocent, the truth will have to come out eventually”.
 
Cover of the book “Presumed Guilty”. Picture posted on Mara Kanté’s Facebook page.
 
In an attempt to stave off gloomy thoughts, I started to write everything that went through my head. I became completely addicted to this, and scribbled in notebooks for hours on end. It was hugely therapeutic, a way to stay alive. I also did it for my future wife and my future children, so they will know the ordeal I have been through. My experience has become the subject of a book, but it could just as easily have been turned into an edge-of-your-seat film: a young minority man from a disadvantaged neighborhood inadvertently becomes an ideal suspect, combined with news-making riots, government involvement, and a prison stint, with an acquittal as the twist ending.
 
“Today, I am a devout Muslim”
 
I also began to read a lot to fill up the hours. Before, I used to think reading was useless. But in prison, I read many books about society and religion. These works brought me closer to God. Today, I am a devout Muslim. I frequently attend mosque and perform my prayers.
 
It may sound strange, but I harbor no feelings of hate. I do not resent the police, or the justice system that ended up acquitting me. I am only bitter. I am frustrated that over two years of my life were wasted. At the time, they needed culprits. The government got involved, started turning up the pressure… They needed to quickly sentence some people, and impose heavy prison sentences on them to serve as an example. I’m the one who paid the price for their haste.
 

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