The wife of a man who has been held in solitary confinement without charge or trial in France for 21 months has told 5Pillars that he’s being kept in jail as a warning to Muslims not to get involved in political activism.
Abdelhakim Sefrioui, 63, was arrested the day after the teacher Samuel Paty was killed in a Paris suburb in October 2020, after he showed a naked caricature of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to his pupils.
Before Paty was killed, and as the incident was doing the rounds on social media, Sefrioui attempted to intervene and facilitate discussion between the Bois d’Aulne school and Muslim parents, but his offer to mediate was turned down.
So he then made a video outside the school with a pupil and her father in which Paty was called “a thug” and the school was urged to sanction him for his actions.
But despite the fact that Sefrioui did not know the killer (18 year old Russian immigrant Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov) or of his intentions, the authorities have accused him of being involved in a terrorist conspiracy.
Abdelhakim Sefrioui’s family is being supported by advocacy group CAGE. His wife told 5Pillars: “Abdelhakim is the scapegoat because the killer was shot dead by the police. His incarceration is a warning to Muslims that you mustn’t talk about politics. They are trying to blackmail us – either you accept what the state wants for Muslims or you are all accused of terrorism.
“Abdelhakim didn’t know this school or the family who had disseminated the information about Mr Paty. He got a text from the father whose daughter had Mr Paty as a teacher. So he received this SMS that she was expelled from school because she was in a lesson where they had shown caricatures and they had made Muslim pupils leave while others stayed – in other words segregation.
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“So Abdelhakim phoned the father to check the information and told him he needed to contact the school to ask them what was going on and why the teacher did what he did. So the next day they met in front of the school and went to see the headteacher to ask her if it was true and to demand an administrative sanction for the teacher. That’s where it all started. After this Abdelhakim did a video where he interviewed the father and his daughter… but there was no incitement to violence in the video. He doesn’t even say the name of the teacher, although he did call for an administrative sanction. But it wasn’t hate speech.
“Now Abdelhakim is accused of ‘complicity to assassinate in a terrorist operation.’ But what really frustrates our lawyers is that there is nothing to link him to the crime. He had no contact with the killer at all so there is nothing. You can’t accuse someone of complicity with someone he doesn’t know. He didn’t know anything about his plans. He knew nothing.”
Abdelhakim Sefrioui is a father of three, a grandfather and a well-known community activist and critic of Islamophobia in France, including the targeting of Muslims organisations by the French state.
He also ran an organisation (now closed down by the authorities) in remembrance of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, called the “Cheikh Yassine Collective.” He organised and participated in countless pro-Palestinian protests in Paris and in activities in support of the Palestinian people in France.
The murder of Samuel Paty on October 16, 2020 by a lone actor, who was neither a parent nor a student at the school, caused nationwide horror.
French president Emmanuel Macron said that the incident was “a typical Islamist terrorist attack,” and that “our compatriot was killed for teaching children freedom of speech.”
Abdelhakim Sefrioui was arrested the next day under the allegation of “complicity to a terrorist murder.” He is still under investigation, one year and a half on, which means he is neither charged nor has he been put on trial.
Under French anti-terror legislation, you can be detained without charge or trial for up to four years. The extended “pre-trial detention” in France has been criticised by the global criminal justice watchdog, Free Trials.
His organisation, the “Cheikh Yassine Collective” was closed down by the government on October 21, 2020, along with other Muslim organisations that included leading charity Baraka City and the anti-Islamophobia NGO, CCIF.
In the last two years, Sefroui has only been interrogated by the authorities three times. His lawyers say the line of questioning exclusively revolves around his beliefs and political opinions.
He continues to be held in solitary confinement with little access to external visits. Prolonged solitary confinement is recognised as a form of torture by the United Nations. His family is also unable to send him money due to their accounts being frozen following his arrest.
Rayan Freschi, a French legal jurist and CAGE organiser in France, said: “Abdelhakim Sefrioui’s case reflects the worrying escalation of the official Islamophobic ‘Systematic Obstruction’ Government policy that persecutes Muslim citizens in France.
“Here is a man – whose innocence is implicitly recognised by authorities through their refusal to charge and trial him – who is being held under torture-like conditions because of his faith-inspired dissent. Through his case, France proves its intolerance towards Islam and totalitarian willingness to silence the dissent Muslims articulate.”
In the video Sefrioui made outside the school (which has now been taken down), he said: “We have witnessed this week, quite simply, the response of a thug, who is a teacher, to the President of the Republic’s call to hate Muslims, to fight Muslims, to stigmatise Muslims.”
The girl who Sefrioui interviewed said in the video that she was in Mr Paty’s lesson, although she subsequently retracted this.
She said: “We were doing a lesson on Islam and my teacher said Muslims ‘raise your hand…’ We raised our hands and he said: ‘I’m going to show a picture, you might be shocked, so if you want you can leave the class.’ So we said that we were human like everyone else and that we had to see the photo he was going to show. So I refused to leave the class. He showed the picture. It was the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) without clothes. And he showed it to us like that. So in the class we were all shocked. Even those who were not Muslims were shocked…
“They don’t respect us – for them we are not equal, even though we are human like them. As I spoke up… he thought I was disturbing his lesson so he excluded me from school for two days. Well, I’m already shocked that they would show me that, a naked man while we’re doing history lessons. They don’t respect us; they don’t see us as others do. Why do they show this about our religion?”
The girl’s father said: “Assalamu ‘alaykum to everyone. I decided to make this video to tell you that my daughter was shocked by the behaviour of her history teacher, I don’t like to use the word teacher anymore, he’s a thug. A history thug who is supposed to teach them history and geography… Indeed he showed a naked man, telling them that it is the Prophet. He told them that this is the Prophet of the Muslims. What is the message he wanted to pass to these children? What is the hatred? Why this hatred? Why does a history teacher behave like that in front of 13 year old students?”
Abdelhakim Sefrioui concluded: “Apparently they knew about it. And that it had been going on for five or six years. It’s been five or six years that children of 12/13 years old, Muslims, are shocked, are attacked, are humiliated in front of their friends. Because that’s what they told us, those with whom we spoke… So we expressed our disagreement and our amazement that the administration could know this and tolerate it. In fact, we were even told that it was on the school’s website. So we let him know one thing, that we, the Council of Imams of France, and the Muslims in France categorically reject this kind of irresponsible and aggressive behaviour which does not respect the right of these children to have, to keep their psychological integrity. So we demand, we said we demanded the immediate suspension of this thug, because he was not a teacher, a teacher is something else, it’s a function that has a lot of nobility…
“Only at the end of our interview did we realise that there was going to be nothing from the establishment. They let us know that. But she let us know that she would pass on the information. So we left there with the firm intention of calling to action in front of the school and the Academic Inspectorate…
“Indeed, we are seeing the development of this machine which is getting out of control and that tomorrow, perhaps if we accept this, we may end up with what happened in Srebrenica, with what happened in Yugoslavia. Because these were people who lived very well, who lived together, who married each other, and in the end they got there, they didn’t think… But when you hear the hateful speech of the President of the Republic towards Muslims, it suggests dark days ahead… And I ask all parents, everywhere in France, to be very, very, very vigilant about what their children do in class.”
Abdelhakim Sefroui’s wife told 5Pillars that her husband is being kept in jail for political reasons but that he is nevertheless determined to fight for justice.
She said: “It’s scandalous because there are other people in the investigation who should be in prison. There’s somebody who is really complicit, who was in contact with the killer before the act and who aided him in his project but that person is free, while Abdelhakim has been in prison for 21 months in solitary confinement. It’s only me who visits him and his lawyers. For the first four months they refused to give him his medicine so that he could sleep properly. So he really suffered. They investigated everything and there is no reason to keep him in prison.”
She said that there is a conspiracy of silence in the French, and even international media, about the case because they are afraid of the French authorities.
“The French media spoke about the case at the start and they jettisoned all presumption of innocence; they accused Abdelhakim of everything. They said he was the ‘biggest Islamist in France,’ he was ‘followed by the security services for a long time,’ he was a ‘fundamentalist’ and a ‘radical.’ We contacted the media several times to rectify this information and to ask for our point of view to be put across, but they said ‘no’ as there was a ban on talking about Abdelhakim. This is censorship.
“We’re not asking them to take our side, we are just asking them to print the facts, to ask questions, to consult, to do their work as journalists, to tell the truth. But these types of journalists don’t exist in France. And even internationally we tried to contact certain well-known papers in England, Ireland, America and Germany, even some well-known Arab journalists. No one wants to talk, everyone is scared. It just needs one journalist to look at the dossier, this might be one of the most flagrant miscarriages of justice of the century. France, which criticises Putin and Africa and everybody, today is in the process of doing something very serious, they have put an innocent man in prison.”
She added her husband is someone who rejects French state interference in the lives of Muslims. He believes it’s not the right of the state to say what is good in Islam and what isn’t.
“Today Muslims in France are scared – they can’t give their opinion. I repeat Abdelhakim is innocent, they have nothing on him. He is someone who is convinced of his innocence – his morale is high, he is strong, he is a man who believes in struggle. He has faith in God and in justice and he is fighting to prove his innocence. But at the same time it’s hard to be in prison and to be isolated from everything.
“I demand his total and immediate liberation. This is a nightmare. No dictatorship in Africa or Russia or Latin America would have done worse. It should be known what France has done. But we have total silence, even internationally. We really need journalists to help us, if no journalists ask questions they will continue like this and it has been 21 months already.”