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CNDS report into Vincennes detention centre death

On 5 July 2010, the Commission nationale de déontologie de la sécurité (CNDS, National Commission for the professional ethics of security forces) was critical of the decision to keep a man in detention in spite of his poor health when it issued an opinion and recommendations on the case involving the death of SS, a Tunisian national, in Paris-Vincennes detention centre for foreigners on 21 June 2008. The incident was followed by a protest within the centre, the largest of its kind in France, which had a capacity that was twice as high as the regulation capacity for French centres de rétention administrative (CRAs) for foreigners (140), and the revolt ended when the centre's two compounds (CRA 1 and CRA 2) burned on 22 June. On 17 March 2010, ten former detainees were convicted for violent acts and the fire during the protest in a trial that was criticised as having a foregone conclusion and as isolating events from their context by defence lawyers, who walked out of proceedings after the fourth hearing (see Migreurop's monitoring of the trial at http://www.migreurop.org/rubrique323.html , and Statewatch Journal vol. 20 no. 1, forthcoming).

Reconstruction of events

The CNDS notes that SS had been held in the Paris-Vincennes CRA 2 since 16 June 2008. The Tunisian man had been refused entry and had just served a four month prison term for drug trafficking, during which he was visited by medical services on eight occasions. His medical file had been sent to the CRA, where he was visited on 17 June, ordered to take medication twice a day, and referred to a police psychiatric ward for a visit, before returning to the centre on 18 June. On 19 June, he only took his medication at night because he had not woken up in the morning, and he was visited by the centre's doctor, who deemed his state compatible with detention and with him being transported to Tunisia, although it was incompatible with the detainee leaving French territory and his vital prognosis was a cause for concern.

On 20 June, he went to the infirmary twice, asking to only take his medication once a day, a request that he was granted. On the following day, security guards were entering rooms looking for 15 detainees who were on a list, and SS was on a bed in a different room from that which he was meant to be in, something that was reportedly quite commonplace. They found him snoring as he slept and shook him, without managing to wake him up and moving on, as he was not on their list. The officers claimed that the detainees in his room had only stated that he was snoring very loudly, but one of the latter told the police investigating the death that he had told them that he was very ill and had to be taken elsewhere. One officer who had accompanied SS to the psychiatric visit said he believed the man's sleepiness was a result of his medication. He was seen sleeping by several detainees without arousing concern, until a friend came to visit him at around 16:30 on 21 June, but he appeared to be asleep. When the detainees in his room shook him, they said he was "hard" and had liquid (similar to blood) dripping from his mouth and nostrils, and sought assistance from police officers. When officers came to the scene with a nurse, around ten detainees had crowded outside the room, an attempt was made to revive him and the emergency services were called.

The detainees claimed there had not been any disturbance or fight in the room. The autopsy confirmed this, ruling out any injuries and establishing that the death resulted from asphyxia due to acute respiratory distress and lungs with signs of emphysema that required further tests. The report notes that the Tunisian consulate was informed of the death and that officers who went to inform his family did not find anyone at home [his son's mother has filed a complaint about not being informed of the death in timely fashion].

As regards the fire in the CRA, the CNDS report notes that commander BM stated that there were incidents soon after the death as officers dispersed a crowd that shouted insults, spat and burned some mattresses in a hall and in a room by using teargas, in order to avoid direct confrontation. The body was taken out in the evening. Seine Saint-Denis MP Jean-Pierre Brard visited the CRA and explained that he would have returned on the next day. On 22 June, there was a protest in the afternoon in CRA 1, which commander BM blames on a demonstration outside the centre, whereas the detainees claim that it was a result of a lack of information about the death to detainees, and a feeling of neglect and lack of concern for them by police officers. The disturbance spread out to CRA 2, there was violence against officers, damage to property and furniture, use of teargas by officers, and the CRA's two buildings were burned by fires that were set in each of them, by the time the fire services arrived and had them under control at around 19:30. The detainees were evacuated and transferred, and some MPs were temporarily denied access to the centre.

The Commission's Opinion

The CNDS' Opinion on the death of SS, in terms of the quality of medical care, asserts that it is not competent to reach a conclusion, but nonetheless expresses its "shock" about the content of the medical report on SS's condition issued by the CRA's doctor, in which his state of health is deemed compatible with detention at the same time as his vital prognosis was a cause for concern. As regards officers awareness of SS's state of health, no shortcomings are identified in view of the man's movements in and out of the room captured on CCTV and the absence of visible signs of him suffering. Moreover, they acted in timely fashion once they were informed of there being a problem by his roommates. The CNDS deplores the lack of initiatives resulting from the diagnosis of the detainees' state of health that expressed concern for his vital prospects, wondering whether he should have been in the centre, and will pass on relevant documents and its Opinion to the prosecution services, leaving it to the judicial authorities to establish whether any legal steps should be adopted and whether there are any repercussions in the field of criminal law.

With regards to the fire, the CNDS does not feel that it is in a position to reach a conclusion, noting the existence of the two theses mentioned above. It limits itself to asserting the difficulty of managing a death in a centre hosting 280 people in an extremely limited space and agrees with some findings expressed in an April 2008 report by the Commission nationale de contrôle des centres et locaux de rétention administrative et des zones d'attente (CRAZA), an oversight body that checks on conditions in places of detention. While it states that in spite of its shortcomings, it is unfair to speak of the Vincennes CRA as a "concentration camp" or "prisoner camp", it adds that its capacity is excessive and should be scaled back down to the limit established by law for such centres, namely 140 places [its division into CRA 1 and CRA 2, two buildings treated as separate centres, enabled this limit to be circumvented]. The report also called for measures to be adopted to open the centre up to external bodies or associations in order to relieve the tension within it resulting from the large number of people who feared expulsion who were kept there for up to 32 days.

The initial refusal of entry to MPs on 22 June 2008 because evacuation operations were underway, is deemed a failure in terms of the ethics of security because it contravenes the law, as MPs are allowed to visit sites where people are denied their freedom "at any time". Finally, the CNDS felt that it was not in a position to reach a conclusion regarding security norms and construction materials employed in the CRA, and the lengthy exposure of detainees to smoke without any specific protective equipment, unlike police officers. The MPs who filed the complaint "deplored" the absence of an evacuation plan, lack of organisation and failure to take into account the detainees' distress as victims of the fire, especially as they were not promptly informed of where they were being transferred to, and allegedly were not able to take their personal effects with them, those transferred to Nîmes were not allowed to go to the toilet or drink throughout the journey, and the lack of food offered to the detainees. Commander BM replied by claiming that the detainees transferred to Nîmes were given cold meals and had their personal effects returned to them, adding that the decisions adopted were improvised as no contingency evacuation plans appeared to be in place, which could have led to dramatic consequences. Hence, and considering that the centre's authorities had to take charge of 248 detainees in difficult circumstances, the CNDS deemed that police officers had acted in compliance with the ethics of security.

Final recommendations

While the CNDS declares itself unable to evaluate the medical report that deemed the health conditions of SS to be a cause of concern as regards his vital prognosis and advised not to remove him from French territory, while it also considered that they were compatible with detention, it has passed on relevant documentation to the prosecution service to examine whether it should entail further action. It recommends that in cases such as this, with these specifications, the responsible authorities should adopt any actions required for the sake of a detainee's health. It also reiterates that article 719 of the code of penal procedure establishes the right for MPs to visit places of detention (detention centres, waiting areas at border points, prisons and places where people are kept in custody), without any limits to this right, noting that staff and officials in these sites should be regularly reminded of this. Measures for the prevention of fires and to put them out should also be implemented, alongside regular fire drills.

Source
Commission nationale de déontologie de la sécurité, Saisine no. 2008-67, 2008-71. Avis et recommendations de la Commission nationale de déontologie de la sécurité, 5 July 2010 [pdf]

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