PARIS—The young man's story is nothing short of horrific.
Stopped by police during an identity check last week in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a gritty suburb on the edge of Paris, the 22-year-old allegedly was forced to the ground, beaten, and raped with a police baton.
"He took his baton and deliberately drove it into my butt," the man, identified as "Theo" in the French press told BFMTV on Monday from his hospital bed. "I fell on my stomach, I had no strength left."
Theo recalled struggling to walk as the officers dragged him to a nearby police car.
"I thought I was going to die," he said.
So severe were his injuries that the youth worker with no criminal record required emergency surgery and remains hospitalized. His sister told French media that the long-term effects of the assault are not yet known.
The case has shocked France, and demonstrators have since gathered in Paris, Nantes, and Rennes to denounce police brutality. Fears continue that any efforts by the police to cover up what happened—or that even seem to cover it up—could spark widespread rioting in the same areas that ignited violence all over France in the autumn of 2005.
Grainy footage of the altercation shows four officers standing over a young black man lying on the ground near a concrete wall. Two officers are then shown leading the man, who appears to be limping, to a squad car. Once inside the car, Theo said he was subjected to additional blows, as well as to racist insults.
All four officers were arrested following the incident. Rape charges have been filed against one cop, while the three others were slapped with assault charges. In a statement, Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux confirmed that all four had been suspended pending the investigation, saying that "exemplary conduct and respect must guide the behavior of security forces at all times."
In a bid to quell rising outrage, French president Francois Hollande paid a visit to Theo in the hospital on Tuesday, praising the young man's "dignity and responsibility" in the face of his ordeal. Celebrities have also chimed in on Twitter, expressing anger and calling for justice.
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," French actor and comedian Omar Sy tweeted, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., while French actor Vincent Cassel called the incident "a national shame."
Despite the damning video evidence, cops deny Theo's claims, saying they had only been trying to get control of an unruly suspect. Frédéric Gabet, the lawyer for the officer facing rape charges, told BFMTV that the young man had violently resisted arrest, even arguing that the penetration with the baton was "accidental."
"This action occurred in a very specific context during a skirmish with this boy, who is 6 feet 2 inches tall, and was struggling like the devil," said Gabet. "The police were using every method they could to bring him to the ground, including the baton. In these conditions a deliberate act doesn't align with the victim's statement."
"The police never pulled down his pants, his boxer shorts were pierced [by the baton]." he added.
Several of Theo's friends and family members have spoken out on his behalf, describing him as a gentle individual who works with young people and is well liked in the community.
"When I hear [from the police version] that he hit a policeman, I don't believe it," a 27-year-old security guard who has known Theo's family since childhood, told AFP. "With others, you could imagine, but not him."
The president of the French chapter of SOS Racisme told The Daily Beast that given the amount of force necessary to cause the type of injuries Theo suffered, he had a difficult time believing that the assault was "completely accidental."
"Whether or not the injury he suffered was involuntary or not, Theo was a victim of unjustified police violence," said Dominique Sopo.
The brutality of the arrest hit a nerve in Aulnay-sous-Bois and neighboring suburbs. In 2005 they were the scene of rioting that spread across the country after two young men were accidentally electrocuted while fleeing police. And for the past six nights youths have clashed with officers and set fire to cars and structures, first in Aulnay-sous-Bois, and later in the neighboring Seine Saint-Denis region, despite Theo's call for calm from his hospital bed.
In the riots that tore through the suburbs more than a decade ago, groups of angry young men torched vehicles and public buildings, prompting the country to declare a state of national emergency and bringing France's suburbs into the global spotlight.
Although they sit just north of Paris, the suburbs, banlieues in French, are worlds away from the glitz associated with the French capital. Rife with poverty, high unemployment, and grim concrete housing projects, their young residents (many the children of immigrants from North and West Africa) live in a bleak, insular world that is cut off from mainstream French society.
Those who do try to escape these depressed neighborhoods often face discrimination from job recruiters either on the basis of their ethnicity (headshots are obligatory on French resumes) or their address, which is often a dead giveaway as to an applicant's racial background or economic status.
As in impoverished corners of America, there is a climate of mistrust between young ethnic minorities living in the banlieues and police. Spontaneous "stop and searches" during which officers demand to see identity papers are routine, and while no official police brutality statistics exist in France, several troubling incidents have been documented in recent years.
In 2015, for instance, a neighbor filmed police officers repeatedly striking a woman in the Seine-Saint-Denis region after she reportedly tried to intervene in the violent arrest of her two teenage sons. And back in July, 24-year-old Adama Traoré died under mysterious circumstances while in police custody, setting off pockets of violent protests in the Val d’Oise region north of Paris.
Cops patrolling France’s banlieues have complained of unsafe working conditions, in which they are often targeted by gangs and drug dealers. In October, officers staged nationwide protests after a firebomb thrown at a police car left four cops injured in the suburb of Viry-Chatillon.
Sopo said that in order to prevent brutal assaults like the one against Theo, police need to tackle issues of prejudice on a department-wide level. Moreover, seasoned officers with past experience working in "sensitive" neighborhoods should be deployed to Paris's banlieues, instead of rookies who, according to Sopo, "confuse exercising authority with humiliation."
Police interrogations and arrests also need an overhaul.
"Current arrest and detention techniques are extremely violent in France," said Sopo. "Enough is enough with police officers who think anything goes."
For the time being, all eyes will be on the outcome of the case. A guilty verdict could quell the resentment among residents who have longed believe that justice is not on their side. If the officers are exonerated, however, there are fears that the banlieues could burn once again.