Seven soldiers went on trial on Monday over the death by drowning eight years ago of a trainee officer during an initiation ritual at France’s most prestigious military academy.
Jallal Hami, 24, drowned in the night of Oct 29 2012 while crossing a swamp as part of a training ritual meant to teach the Saint-Cyr officer school’s traditions to new recruits.
Of the seven, five were trainee officers at the time, and two part of the school’s leadership team, including a general.
The night of Hami’s death, new recruits were told to swim across a swamp for 43 metres (47 yards) while wearing helmets in water with a temperatures of 9 celsius (48 Fahrenheit) in an exercise meant to simulate a beach landing.
To the blast of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” — made famous by Francis Ford Coppola’s war movie “Apocalypse Now” — the recruits jumped into the cold water. Several quickly struggled and went under, gasping for air and clutching at others.
Organisers threw them lifebelts to help them out but it was too late for Jallal Hami, who was reported missing.
Firefighters, alerted an hour later, found his body at 2:35 AM near the bank of the swamp.
“The judiciary must do its job and we expect individuals to be held responsible, Jallal Hami’s brother Rachid said before the trial opened. “This was not just bad luck,” he said.
“This is not a trial brought by an Arab and Muslim family from a disadvantaged suburb against the French army,” he said.
The trial should elucidate how “dysfunctions in the military” had led to his brother’s death. The defendants “let him down”, Rachid Hami said.
Among the accused is Francis Chanson, a general, whose lawyer William Pineau said that while the events had been “tragic”, his client could be held criminally responsible “because he did not know what really went on on the ground”.
Jallal Hami came to France in 1992 with his mother and brothers to escape Algeria’s civil war.
For years Hami — who earned a diploma from elite university Sciences Po, studied Mandarin and excelled at sports — had hoped to be admitted to Saint-Cyr.
His qualifications eventually allowed him to enter the officer school directly as a third-year trainee.
The Saint-Cyr military school, founded in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, is located in the western French region of Britanny.