Wednesday, April 29, 2009; 10:03 AM
PARIS (Reuters) - A self-proclaimed "gang of barbarians" accused of kidnapping a young Jewish man in a Paris suburb, torturing him for 24 days and killing him went on trial Wednesday.
The death of Ilan Halimi, 23, in 2006 horrified France and came to symbolize a rise in anti-Semitic violence in its poor, multi-ethnic suburbs.
The leader of the "barbarians," Youssouf Fofana, smirked at Halimi's relatives and shouted "Allahu akbar!" ("God is Greatest!" in Arabic) at them as he entered the courtroom.
Bearded and wearing a white tracksuit, Fofana gave his identity during formal questioning by the judge as "Arabs African revolt barbarian salafist army."
The 28-year-old said he was born on February 13, 2006, in Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois, the date and place of Halimi's death.
During his time in detention, Fofana, a young French man of Ivorian origin, has bombarded the magistrates investigating the case with letters full of anti-Semitic insults.
He stands accused of kidnapping, sequestration, torture and murder. The charge sheet also includes anti-Semitism, which French law considers an "aggravating circumstance" requiring the stiffest sentences. Fofana faces life in jail.
Fofana has admitted all the charges against him except the accusation that he stabbed Halimi to death.
Among the 26 other defendants are the girl who is alleged to have been used as bait to capture Halimi and young men accused of taking part in the abduction and guarding the captive.
The trial is scheduled to last 2-1/2 months during which 162 witnesses and 50 experts will testify. Evidence will be given behind closed doors at the request of two of the defendants who were minors at the time of the crime.
Halimi was kidnapped on January 20, 2006, in the Paris suburb of Sceaux where he had been lured by a girl.
His kidnappers tried unsuccessfully to extort a ransom of 450,000 euros ($594,000) from his family.
They held Halimi in a cellar in another suburb, tortured him until he was close to death, and then dumped him near a train station. He died in hospital shortly after he was found.
Many in France's Jewish community say there has been a rise in anti-Semitism among disaffected youths of Arab and African origin since a Palestinian uprising started in late 2000, because of feelings of solidarity with the Palestinians.
Those feelings have mingled in the minds of some of these youths with older anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Several members of the "gang of barbarians" testified that Halimi was targeted because he was Jewish, which in their minds meant he had money and his community would pay to get him back.
After the murder, Fofana fled to Ivory Coast. From there he made death threats by telephone to Halimi's father and girlfriend. He was extradited to France on March 4, 2006.
(Writing by Estelle Shirbon, editing by Robert Woodward)