Mahamadou Fofana – the cousin of Adama Traoré, a black French man who died in police custody in 2016 – purportedly drowned last week while fleeing from police. An internal investigation has been opened into the case, after his family said it would file a lawsuit for voluntary manslaughter.
A court in Versailles announced the investigation on Friday, which will seek to determine the official cause of the 35-year-old’s death.
It all began on the night of September 13, when police received a call from a local resident reporting a motorcycle theft in the western Paris suburb of Marly-le-Roi. Officers from France’s anti-crime brigade (Brigade anti-criminalité or BAC) were sent to the scene, where they said they intercepted five men trying to lift a motorcycle into a van.
At around 11pm, the police gave chase, stopping the suspects’ vehicle. The police claimed that the driver cut the engine, before continuing to flee on foot. According to their version of events, the suspect then dove into the Seine River, yet then appeared to try to swim back to shore. The police said he drowned a few metres from land, despite their best efforts to save him.
Fofana’s family has disputed their statement, raising questions about the murky circumstances surrounding the man’s death. Authorities have since issued a call for witnesses, due to a lack of video surveillance in the area where Fofana died.
One autopsy, two interpretations
At the heart of the Fofana family’s complaints are the preliminary results of an autopsy performed on his body. On September 16, Versailles prosecutor Maryvonne Caillibotte said that “all signs pointed to drowning” as the cause of Fofana’s death, citing the report.
Yet the family’s lawyer, Yassine Bouzrou, believes there is more to the story. “[There] were serious, recent lesions on the shoulder and head of the body, which could correspond to a blunt force,” he told FRANCE 24.
A number of French media confirmed the existence of the lesions, as well as a skull depression, after viewing a copy of the autopsy report.
While Caillibotte made mention of “fresh abrasions” on Fofana’s skull and right shoulder in her statement, she said that, according to the coroner, “they did not play a role in the cause of death”.
Bouzrou, who said earlier this week that he intended to file a lawsuit for voluntary manslaughter, has since accused the Versailles prosecutor’s office of withholding important information. He also criticised the authorities’ efforts to “criminalise the victim” by leaking Fofana’s criminal record to the press, which showed that there has been a warrant out for his arrest since 2017, and that he was previously sentenced to 18 months in prison for drug trafficking.
The Truth for Adama demands answers
Asked whether there were any similarities between Fofana and his cousin Adama Traoré’s deaths, Bouzrou said that he saw “common points with numerous incidents of suspected police violence”.
Traoré died on his 24th birthday on July 19, 2016, after being pinned down by three police officers during an identity check gone awry. While one autopsy found that heart failure was the cause of death, another concluded it was asphyxiation. No charges were ever brought in the case, which has become symbolic of discriminatory police violence in France.
In the wake of Fofana’s death, The Truth for Adama – an advocacy group spearheaded by Traoré’s half-sister, Assa – has used social media to amplify his family’s calls for justice.
In a video posted on Facebook, Fofana’s sister questions the “blurry circumstances” surrounding his death, saying that she did not “believe the official version of events at all” and calling on the police to “re-establish the truth”. At her side stands Assa Traoré, who adds: “There are lesions. We got the impression that he was hit with a baton.”
A photograph of Fofana was also posted on Friday with the caption, “He was engaged in the fight Truth and Justice for Adama. He was against police violence. Unfortunately, he died during a car chase with the police. Sad destiny. Truth and Justice Mahamadou!”
An investigative judge will now take over the case, which could take several months to conclude.
This article was adapted from the original in French by Rachel Holman.