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How French authorities collaborate with reformed criminals

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Anna W.

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Claude Chossat was sentenced eight years in prison in late 2019. The trial of this reformed criminal shines new light on the thorny issue of collaborators of justice and the role criminals can play in the quest for truth.

The first day of Claude Chossat’s trial takes place on the 28th October 2019 in Aix-en-Provence. The atmosphere in the courtroom is tense. Benches are packed with journalists and the jurors’ faces are solemn. The only sound to be heard is the testimony of expert lawyers and judges. Claude Chossat does not yet know that, in 11 days’ time, he will be handed an eight-year-long sentence.

What is justice to a reformed criminal?

The self-proclaimed reformant of Corsican organised crime has just been sentenced to almost a decade in prison. The former rally driver was tried for his involvement in the killing of Richard Casanova - one of the ‘godfathers’ of the Brise de Mer gang - who was killed in April 2008. In 2009, Chossat decided to break the omertà by giving information on the malicious organised crime syndicate he’d been immersed in. A courageous act to some, cowardly to others. Yet Chossat, who styles himself as a reformed criminal, will not benefit from the status of ‘collaborator of justice’, nor receive the protection that comes with it.

At the Des livres et l’alerte conference in November 2018, Claude Chossat told Cafébabel: “The judge told me that it would be possible to implement a protection system for reformed criminals, and that, in France, impunity doesn’t exist, but there are measures for people who want to escape that milieu and go back to a normal way of life.” This was a short-lived hope and lost promise, which was, according to Chossat, caused by “the judge transferring out of the JIRS [Specialised Interregional Courts] without wrapping up his affairs and sticking to his commitments.”

Chossat wasn’t able to obtain official protection, largely because the law stipulates that “a criminal cannot benefit from the status of collaborator of justice if they have been involved in an act which has resulted in the death or permanent disability of a victim.” This measure, which systematically disqualifies Chossat from collaborator of justice status, infuriates Fabrice Rizzoli. Rizzoli is the president of Crim’HALT, an organisation that campaigns for France to establish a collaborator of justice status based around the Italian model. The organised crime specialist argues: “We can’t fight against a criminal phenomenon if we don’t understand it. And in order to understand it, the experiences of those who have been on the inside is invaluable. As a result, we can have no insight into the French mafia without the help of collaborators of justice.”

A reformed criminal with collaborator of justice status is entitled to police protection and a false identity. However, this has been provided for only “a handful of people in France,” according to Thierry Vallat, a lawyer at the Paris bar who is open about his support of extending the collaborator of justice status to more criminals. This is far from being the consensus in the legal community. Vallat says: “I feel like I’m really in the minority. Lawyers are very reluctant, especially defence lawyers, for obvious reasons.” He believes that his fellow criminal lawyers “have a tendency to argue that the words of a reformed criminal can’t be trusted” and that they “contribute to a commodification of information from unreliable sources who are acting only from a place of self-interest.”

As a further requirement for obtaining the status, the reformed criminal must “endeavour to ‘avoid’ or ‘stop’ the occurrence of a ‘criminal offence’ by alerting the authorities.” In other words, the criminal offence in question cannot have already taken place. Vallat criticises this requirement: “We can’t give the status to a reformed criminal, but we reserve it solely for those who can warn us of a crime. It’s a flaw in the system.”

Life after organised crime

The French justice system, which has been met with a wall of silence from the Corsican mafia, hasn’t had the same experience of organised crime as its transalpine neighbour, Italy. The mafia was widespread in Italy from 1982, but hadn’t yet spread its criminal activity to anywhere else in Europe. Italy’s murder rate was considerably reduced by the ‘mass trial’ held in Palermo in 1987, during which 300 members of the mafia were sentenced for various crimes linked to mafia activity. This was thanks to the testimony of Tommaso Buscetta, a reformed former mafia boss. La Botte, unlike France, protects the perpetrators of past crimes under its collaborator of justice status. “The individual who has killed can expose whoever authorised the killing without fearing for his own life,” explains Fabrice Rizzoli.

“If I had applied to a programme exactly like this, I wouldn’t have lasted a week.”

While the status of collaborator of justice may be valuable to some, it can turn out to be restrictive for the converted criminal. “It can be very useful in terms of protecting themselves and their families, but reintegration into society isn’t always a smooth process,” says Déborah Puccio-Den, a researcher at the CNRS (the French National Centre for Scientific Research). She raises this nuance after leading an inquest in Rome into the protection services offered to witnesses and collaborators of justice.

“Once they’ve been separated from their gangs, it is hard for them to establish a social life,” she observes, based on the reformed criminals she has encountered. According to her, it is “technically impossible to reconstitute a true identity, as the State is unable to create fake papers for them.” For collaborators who are dependent on the protection service, it is impossible to take steps such as renting a flat, buying a mobile phone or a car. Déborah Puccio-Den stresses that the status does offer them some remuneration “in line with an average salary,” but they are obligated to “participate in court as a witness” to receive it.

For Claude Chossat, gaining this status wasn’t necessarily an ideal solution. “If I had applied to a programme exactly like this, I wouldn’t have lasted a week. At the first meeting, they tell you that it’s going to be tough and your children will have to be taken out of school. You’ll lose your house and your bank account. You’ll have to cut your ties with your family. Your life will no longer belong to you,” he says, regarding the status put in place by the Perben 2 law, which was introduced ten years after its vote in 2004.

If Italy has seen a decline in the mafia’s “settling of scores” in recent years, it’s not solely thanks to the collaborators of the justice system, but also to a change in the strategic method used by the Italian mafia. One theory, Puccio-Den explains, is that: “The very essence of the mafia is adapting to situations. It now acts in a more insidious way, at an economic, financial and political level, without provoking the same explosions of violence we came to know in the 1980s.” A modus operandi that is the same in Corsica, according to Claude Chossat, for whom the mafia’s presence in the political and financial spheres goes without saying.

Challenging the mafia at a European level

According to Crimorg, Italy’s budget for support for reformed criminals stands at around 90 million euros, 23 million of which is spent on housing. Déborah Puccio-Den argues that this figure indicates “over a thousand reformed criminals,” as the protection takes into account the family members of the individual as well. Because of the inherent presence of crime in the mafia association, Italy can legally punish someone for belonging to the mafia. Fabrice Rizzoli sees this as an “astute” method, which is designed to “combat the money laundering that is ingrained in the legal economy.”

As part of the Palermo convention in 2000, the UN set up a universal framework for the implementation of international police and judicial co-operation. Ten years later, the European Parliament took on organised crime through its Special Committee on Organised Crime, Corruption and Money Laundering (CRIM), inspired by the Italian justice system. Was this a guarantee of change? Fabrice Rizzoli believes so. Puccio-Den, however, is not so sure: “I’m not convinced that the Italian model should be blindly replicated without conducting a field study in each country. Each country would need to be carefully assessed by specialists, researchers, lawyers and judges and have a model suited to the area-specific terms of the local mafia.” Though it’s not easy to define how the mafia operates at a juridical level, the introduction of European jurisdiction seems that it could create additional complexities. Speaking of the gradual alignment of criminal and penal laws, Thierry Vallat claims that, given the heterogeneity of EU countries, “it’s a bit unrealistic to think that we can force countries to all standardise to fit one system or another.”

We are still waiting for France to align itself with the Italian model for reformed mafia criminals. In the Claude Chossat trial, the President of the criminal court declared: “The court has taken into consideration your reintegration and your contribution to justice in many of our cases,” before announcing the eight year prison sentence. A reduced sentence, but one which ignores the important issue of protection for his family.

Cover Photo: © gogoramm on Flickr

Read also: Falcone? Not a hero but a model

Story by

Safouane Abdessalem

Du piano classique à la presse écrite. Pour Cafébabel, je m'intéresse particulièrement aux questions sociales, économiques et culturelles, tout en gardant un œil sur la politique étrangère. Biculturel, binational & bidouilleur.

Translated from Mafia corse : comment la France collabore avec les repentis