Analysis: You can be mad and still fit to stand trial

By Jean-Yves Camus, December 10, 2009

The Selam case has been re-opened, but the murderer will most probably be declared insane again, and despite the quite obvious antisemitic intent of his action, it is dubious that he will ever be jailed.

This is because there is a loophole in the French judicial system. Despite the Dati Law of 2008, which allows the family of a victim to appeal a judge’s ruling that a criminal is insane, most judges think that being mentally disturbed means being unfit to stand trial.

In the specific case of racist and antisemitic actions, this is particularly shocking. There is no doubt that in order to kill one of your best friends with a fork and a knife, as Adel Amastaibou is alleged to have done, one needs to be quite mad.

But after all, most of the Nazi war criminals were certainly of this kind, and this was no excuse for their ideology and behaviour.

In the Selam case, the policemen who arrested Amastaibou have testified that he was perfectly calm, that he did not express remorse and that his account of the facts was coherent.

True, Amastaibou had a record as a drug addict and a violent man who had assaulted his own parents. He was not an Islamist and had even befriended the Selam family. Nevertheless, he is said to have told several witnesses and the police that he had killed “a bastard of a Jew” and this is enough to qualify the murder as a hate-crime.

A well-know Jewish psychiatrist told the court that the murder was not antisemitic but that it was rather “a psychotic act, the result of delirium”. This is a little bit easy. The logical consequence of what is perhaps the medical truth would inevitably lead, were it taken at face value by the courts, to exonerate most racists and antisemites from their moral and legal responsibility.

A mentally disturbed criminal is obviously the victim of an illness for which he is not responsible. That can mean extenuating circumstances, but victims of injustice or prejudice cannot be totally exonerated from their penal responsibility.

Jean-Yves Camus is a professor at the Institut Universitaire d’études juives Elie Wiesel in Paris

Last updated: 3:39pm, December 10 2009