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French Policemen Trial Lays Bare Social Divisions

Criminal court President Nicolas Leger chairs the Rennes courtroom, western France, Monday, March 16, 2015.

Two police officers are on trial in France in connection with the deaths of a pair of teenagers nearly a decade ago in a Paris suburb. The event sparked widespread rioting that lay bare racial and social divisions that many say have not been healed.

The police officers, Sebastien Gaillemin and Stephanie Klein, face charges that they failed to prevent the deaths of teenagers Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna. The two youths and another teen hid from police in an electricity substation in the Paris suburb of Clichy Sous Bois. Bouna and Zyed were electrocuted; the third youth survived with severe burns.

The incident in October, 2005, unleashed three weeks of rioting across France that were the country's worst in decades. It sparked soul-searching about police brutality, and the treatment of the country's many ethnic immigrants who live in gritty suburbs like Clichy.

The two officers are charged with failing to prevent the boys' deaths, because they never notified the EDF power company that they might be hiding in the station. Their lawyers claims they never thought the teens were there.

Judges at the time recommended the case be brought to trial, but the local prosecutors judged differently. The boys' families fought on, and the trial is finally being held in Brittany.

The families' lawyer, Jean-Pierre Mignard, told the media the case had dragged on because authorities did not want to bring it to trial. The youths died in atrocious conditions, he said, and it could have been avoided.

The lawyer for the police officers, Daniel Merchat, agrees that 10 years is too long for justice to act. But he told French radio the officers are innocent and have nothing to reproach themselves.

Activist groups say the case reflects larger racial injustices in France, which bely the country's motto of liberty, equality and fraternity. The parents of both youths immigrated here from North and sub-Saharan Africa.

Youssouf Seck is a member of Stop Le Control Au Facies, which campaigns against police racial profiling. He has also started a group in solidarity with residents of Ferguson, in the United States, where a black teenager was killed by a police officer last year.

Seck says in both France and the United States, police rarely face justice. When they do, he says, the condemnation is weak compared to the charges.

If found guilty the French officers could face up to five years in prison and about $80,000 in fines.