By Catherine Zemmouri
BBC Africa, Paris
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
A 35-year-old Somali fisherman, wrongly accused by the French government of being a pirate, has spent five lonely years in Paris – mostly behind bars – unable to see his son or wife and is now fighting for compensation.
For many people in Africa, the idea of visiting the French capital is an unattainable dream but for Abdulqader Guled Said, his real-life experience of Paris has been a nightmare.
At the end of the four-month 2008 fishing season, he was heading from the coast of Somalia to his home in the town of Garowe, about 180km (110 miles) inland, but never arrived.
He was detained in a dramatic helicopter raid by French commandos near the town of Jariban on 12 April, along with five others.
The French authorities suspected them of being behind the hijacking of the French luxury yacht, Le Ponant, the previous week in the Gulf of Aden.
Its 30-member crew was released on the morning of 12 April after a ransom was paid, reportedly by the yacht’s owner.
Later that day, Mr Said accepted a lift home from his brother from the port city of Gara’ad.
The four-by-four vehicle was stopped en route on a desert road by four French army helicopters.
The passengers had their hands tied behind their backs, were blindfolded and airlifted out of Somalia.
Mr Said says he had no idea at the time that his brother, Daher Guled Said, had taken part in the hijacking.
Last June, Daher and three of the other Somalis who had been detained in 2008 were found guilty of piracy in a Paris court.
Mr Said and one of the other accused were acquitted.
But his acquittal has done nothing to undo the damage – and he says his life remains in tatters from the traumatic experience.
“It was awful. I was on my own in a very small cell,” Mr Said told the BBC about the confusing days after his abduction.
“Not understanding a word of what I was told. Not being able to communicate with the other detainees. The pain was deep. I suffered a lot,” he says.
In fact, the trauma he suffered was so profound that he has been diagnosed with a severe case of Ganser syndrome, also known as prison psychosis.
It is a reaction to extreme stress and symptoms include confusion and making irrational statements, and he complains of hallucinations.
“It took me time to understand why all this had happened to me,” he said.
“But then, when I understood, I also knew I was innocent and I was just hoping that the French judges would acknowledge this and free me.”
This took four years.
Sadness remains etched upon his face – and more bitter times were to come.
He thought after being found innocent, his life would improve and he would be returning to his family.
But instead he was thrown out onto the streets of Paris with a prison “survival kit”, which included a Metro ticket and a Sim card.
He had no money in his pocket.
“I’m ashamed by the whole story,” his lawyer Augustin d’Ollone said.
Successful pirate attacks off Somalia have decreased in the last few years
“This is just outrageous to have transferred them in total irregularity to France and to have mistreated them in this way.”
The BBC has repeatedly asked for a statement from the French justice ministry about Mr Said’s treatment, but it has refused to comment on his case.
Four months later, a French court ruled that the government should pay Mr Said 90,000 euros ($119,000; £76,500) in compensation for the judicial mistake.
This is far lower than compensation received in other cases of miscarriages of justice
Last year a French farm worker wrongly accused of rape was awarded nearly 800,000 euros for his seven years behind bars by a court of appeal. His family were also compensated, his mother getting 50,000 euros and each of his three siblings 30,000 euros.
So Mr d’Ollone has decided to appeal for higher compensation for Mr Said – and separately has filed a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights about his illegal rendition and trial in France.
Since former French President Nicolas Sarkozy took the decision to abduct and put on trial those accused of hijacking the French yacht, there has been a sharp fall in the number of acts of piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
This is partly because of the increased use of private security guards on ships and better co-ordination between patrolling international navies.
Fear of returning
For Jacques Myard, an MP in Mr Sarkozy’s UMP party – now in opposition – piracy would best be dealt with using methods of old.
“In other times pirates would have been hanged right on the boat. It was the custom over the past centuries because piracy is an international crime and it’s not acceptable by any civilized nation,” he said.
He does admit, however, that France has an obligation to the Somalis wrongly accused in this case.
“As for the ones who were mistakenly brought to France, they should be helped to go back home,” he says.
But even that prospect is of little comfort to Mr Said as he is scared of returning home, fearing the pirate community may accuse him of collaborating with the French against his brother and the other pirates.
Mr Said still does not have access to any of the money he was awarded. He was given food and shelter by a small non-government organisation and assistance from his lawyer when first released.
He has now applied for asylum, which means that since October he has been getting a monthly government grant of 280 euros – a sum on which it is hard to survive in France – so he eats just once a day.
Before being abducted he was able to support his wife and son and help out his mother from his income as a fisherman.
In his absence, they have been surviving with the help of family members.
His plan is to bring his wife and son to France should he be given asylum.
He says he deeply regrets the day he accepted the lift from his brother.
But for him the greatest anguish has been being deprived of watching his son – now aged nine – grow up.