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A Woman Protested Her Brother's Death In France — Now Police Are Suing For Defamation

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The trial of a woman who says the French police are responsible for her brother's death wrapped up in a Paris court today. Her brother was a Black man who died in police custody. She says he was asphyxiated just like George Floyd. She's been fighting to bring the officers to justice for the last five years, but it wasn't the officers on trial today. She was for defaming them. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hundreds of supporters gathered outside the Paris Courthouse in support of Assa Traore. They chanted, justice for Adama. That's Traore's younger brother, who died in July 2016 at the age of 24. Since then, Assa Traore has been on a relentless but so far unsuccessful pursuit of justice.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in French).

BEARDSLEY: On the third anniversary of her brother's death, Assa wrote an open letter naming and accusing three policemen and several others, including medical examiners and judges, of obstructing justice by hiding the real cause of her brother's death. The three officers sued her for defamation. Sociologist Eric Fassin was an expert witness for Traore this week. He says this trial is a distraction from the main issue of what happened to her brother, and nothing has advanced in that case.

ERIC FASSIN: Many people in France have to wonder, is the justice system a way to correct the abuses of the state, or is the state fully on the side of the police system?

BEARDSLEY: After George Floyd's death last year, protests calling for justice for Adama Traore broke out across France. His sister Assa is now the face of the fight against racism and discrimination. Twenty-six-year-old Wuissam Tabia was waiting to get into the courtroom. He says young people are inspired by her.

WUISSAM TABIA: (Through interpreter) Somehow it's actually good that she's in front of the justice system because she's following the rules and the process. All this is really reverberating. And it could have an impact when we get back to the real story, which is these three policemen.

BEARDSLEY: In court, Traore stood by her accusations and her manifesto, which she titled "J'accuse," or I accuse. It recalls writer Emile Zola's famous condemnation of the French military's anti-Semitic conviction of Jewish Colonel Alfred Dreyfus for treason in the 19th century. Fassin says that was powerful.

FASSIN: The reference to the Dreyfus affair is a way of deciding that we can think about the present in the light of the past even though the targets may not be the same.

BEARDSLEY: Outside the courthouse, many people say Derek Chauvin's conviction for George Floyd's death gives them hope. Law student Jennifer Curier says the French have really woken up to the problem of police racism in the last year.

JENNIFER CURIER: We are way more angry and way more hopeful. I feel that things are changing. And because she's here, it shows that they are afraid, you know? She's close. She's close to succeed.

BEARDSLEY: But sociologist Fassin says what happened to her brother Adama cannot go unpunished or treated as a non-event because to do so would put democracy itself at risk.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEACH HOUSE SONG, "BLACK CAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.