PARIS -- Last week, a 23-year-old man initially identified as "Ilan" was found by a passerby stumbling in a field near the railroad tracks in the Essonne region south of Paris. Handcuffed, naked, with four-fifths of his body covered with bruises, stab wounds and serious burns, Ilan died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Soon after, police provided more details. The victim had been kidnapped Jan. 20 and held for 24 days by a gang from the banlieues, the poor suburban projects that ring the French capital, who eluded capture while repeatedly contacting Ilan's family with ransom demands. The police suspect the group was involved in other kidnapping attempts in the last two months that used young women as bait. Several of the targeted men worked, as Ilan did, in the small cell phone shops along Boulevard Voltaire in the mixed 11th arrondissement of Paris. In another case, a suspicious father replaced his son for a meeting with a girl who claimed to be a singer, and fell into the hands of masked men who tried to capture him but ran away when someone called the police.
Throughout Ilan's disappearance, the police handled his case as a straightforward kidnap for ransom. The discovery of his body, bearing signs of barbaric torture over an extended period of time, raised serious doubts about this hypothesis. Later, a policeman admitted to the press that he and his colleagues were baffled by the gang's erratic behavior. Ransom demands went up to €400,000, dropped to €100,000 one day, €5,000 another. The kidnappers called off several pickup arrangements, acting like amateurs, but were highly sophisticated in using untraceable emails and cell phones.
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Yet one detail was consistently played down by the investigators and missing from the early media reporting on the killing. The victim, whose full name is Ilan Halimi, was Jewish. Most of the men targeted in other kidnapping attempts were Jewish. Most members of the gang who allegedly carried out the crime are Muslims, whose families come from the Maghreb or sub-Saharan Africa and live in the very sort of neighborhoods that went up in flames during three weeks of nationwide rioting last fall.
Jewish community leaders like Roger Cukierman, president of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France, an umbrella group for the country's 600,000 Jews, cautioned against hasty conclusions and unreasonable panic. But French Jews have become sensitive to a well-documented rise in violent Muslim anti-Semitism over the past five years and saw anti-Semitism as the missing link in this senseless crime. After all, Ilan's family is simple and modest. Ruth Halimi, who is divorced from Ilan's father, works as a receptionist. Why else, people are asking, would Ilan be tortured so cruelly for so long? No other motive, aside from sheer hatred, is apparent.
After Ilan was found on Feb. 13, the pieces started to fall into place quickly. When the police put out a sketch of a blond woman who had tried to bait other young men in similar circumstances as Ilan Halimi's, Audrey Lorleach turned herself in. She led police to a housing project in Bagneux, a suburb in Hauts-de-Seine. Fifteen suspects in the Halimi murder, who call their gang the "Barbarians," were brought into custody. Youssouf Fofana, who refers to himself (in English) as the "Brain of the Barbarians," is the apparent ringleader. He is on the run and, investigators suspect, hiding in northern Ivory Coast, the birthplace of his parents. The girl who entrapped Ilan Halimi, who was also on the run, may be among the three people arrested in Aix-en-Provence Tuesday.
Ilan was held prisoner and abused in an apartment and later a utility room in the cellar in one of the project buildings. Both were lent to the gang by the concierge, who is also now in custody. Some in the gang were known delinquents. Mr. Fofana, who is 26, had served time for armed robbery. But another member was in on-the-job training in the IT service of a French TV station.
In initial statements to the press, Public Prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin and various police officials stuck to their hypothesis that money was the motive for the crime, not anti-Semitism. They noted that Ilan Halimi had been tortured as if the gang were following "a known scenario." Photos of Ilan, naked, with a sack on his head and a gun pointed at his temple were emailed to family members suggesting, according to the police, "scenes of torture at Abu Ghraib." As it turns out, the beheading of Daniel Pearl or Iraqi snuff films are the better comparison. An anonymous police detective quoted in Monday's edition of Libération said: "It's simply that, for those criminals, Jew equals money."
Later that same day, investigating magistrate Corinne Goetzmann detained seven of the suspects on charges of kidnapping, sequestration, torture, acts of barbarism and premeditated murder in an organized gang. They will also be charged with targeting the victim on the basis of his religion, French for hate crime, which carries a stiffer penalty. Justice Minister Pascal Clément explained that the charge of anti-Semitism was based on the fact that one of the suspects had declared to the judge that they picked a Jew because Jews are supposed to be rich. But, according to reports in the French press, some of the suspects in police custody said that they tortured Ilan with particular cruelty simply because he was Jewish.
No longer able to deny or play down the racial motive, the investigation is entering a new phase. One of the most troubling aspects of this affair is the probable involvement of relatives and neighbors, beyond the immediate circle of the gang, who were told about the Jewish hostage and dropped in to participate in the torture.
Ilan's uncle Rafi Halimi told reporters that the gang phoned the family on several occasions and made them listen to the recitation of verses from the Quran, while Ilan's tortured screams could be heard in the background. The family has publicly criticized the police for deliberately ignoring the explicit anti-Semitic motives, which were repeatedly expressed and should have dictated an entirely different approach to the case from the start. Police searches have now revealed the presence of Islamist literature in the home of at least one of the gang members.
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The highest echelons of the French government are now preoccupied with the murder of Ilan Halimi. Paris is well aware that the case threatens France's international reputation, but far more than that is at stake. Once again, as in the suburban riots of 2005, the country is forced to come face to face with the criminalized, alienated and racist Muslim youth and their adult enablers in its midst.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin declared, in a long speech delivered at the annual dinner of the CRIF, that this heinous crime was anti-Semitic, and that anti-Semitism is not acceptable in France. He promised that the perpetrators would be captured and punished. Two French policemen were sent to the Ivory Coast with an international warrant to arrest Mr. Fofana who flew there on a one-way ticket on Feb. 15, the day that his photo appeared in Le Figaro. A delegation of the CRIF and members of the Halimi family on Tuesday met with Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
The murder of Ilan Halimi invites comparison with the November 2003 killing of a Jewish disc jockey, Sébastien Selam. His Muslim neighbor, Adel, slit his throat, nearly decapitating him, and gouged out his eyes with a carving fork in his building's underground parking garage. Adel came upstairs with bloodied hands and told his mother, "I killed my Jew, I will go to paradise." In the two years before his murder, the Selam family was repeatedly harassed for being Jewish. The Selam case has not been opened by the magistrate. The murderer, who admits his guilt, was placed in a psychiatric hospital, and may be released soon.
The initial response to the kidnapping of Ilan Halimi suggested a comparably selective ignorance. But many things have changed in French society in the past two years. Then, faced with the new tide of anti-Semitism, the Jewish community was left alone with its distress and at times even accused of being justifiably targeted because of its support for Israel. Today the government has apparently decided that the barbarous hatred unleashed against one Jewish man is a threat to all of France.
Ms. Poller is an American novelist living in Paris since 1972.