SORGUES, France — A T-shirt worn by 3-year-old nursery-school student named Jihad has led to an unusual and politically charged criminal trial in Sorgues that tests the limits of free speech — and common sense — in a France increasingly ill at ease with its growing Muslim population.
“I am a bomb,” the shirt said on the front. The back read, “Jihad Born Sept. 11.”
The prosecution and the defense have predicted the outcome is likely to become a legal precedent as the government and justice system handle recurring friction between France’s 8 percent Muslim minority and the majority of the country’s 65 million inhabitants who recognize their roots in an ancient Christian tradition.
The tensions have been increasingly visible as French soldiers combat Islamist guerrillas in Mali, in northwestern Africa, and anti-terrorism police scour the country’s poor suburbs in search of Muslim young people drawn by the call to jihad or revenge.
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An Islamist cell broken up in the Marseille suburb of Marignane this month, for instance, was preparing to build bombs for terrorism attacks in French cities, authorities said. In another sign of the strain, France’s highest court, the Cour de Cassation, recently overturned a lower-court decision that endorsed the firing of a nursery-school teacher who refused to remove the Islamic veil covering her hair.
The case in Sorgues, a town just northeast of Avignon, in southern France, began Sept. 25 at an unlikely place: the Ramières de Sorgues municipal nursery. As she dressed the children after a lunch break, a teacher became alarmed when she saw Jihad’s T-shirt.
Although Jihad was indeed born Sept. 11, the teacher saw an outrageous reference to Islamic war and the al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, in which nearly 3,000 people were killed. Concerned, she spoke with the principal, who was equally upset and called in Jihad’s Moroccan-born mother, Bouchra Bagour, 35.
Told of the indignation produced by Jihad’s shirt, the single mother, who works as a secretary, apologized for causing trouble and said she had no intention of conveying a political message via her toddler. The shirt, she pledged, would be put away for good.
The issue did not rest there. The principal wrote a report to school-district authorities. A copy of the report landed on the desk of Mayor Thierry Lagneau. The mayor, from the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, said in an interview that he regarded the T-shirt as a “provocation,” and he stepped into action.
“I said to myself, we can’t let that go by,” Lagneau recalled. “I didn’t know what was behind it, but we could not let that go. We have to impose limits.”
Lagneau wrote a letter Sept. 29 to the region’s chief prosecutor, Bernard Marchal, asking for an investigation for possible criminal prosecution and a “thorough” investigation by child-welfare authorities to see if Bagour was a fit mother.
Before long, Bagour and her brother, Zeyad Bagour, 29, were called in separately by national police and questioned about their religious and political leanings. The mother was questioned for about an hour and released. The uncle, who had bought the T-shirt in nearby Avignon and given it to Jihad, said he was kept in custody for four hours, including more than two hours in a holding cell.
“The questions were scandalous,” said Soliman Makouh, Zeyad Bagour’s lawyer.
Zeyad Bagour, who was born in France and works nights in a fast-food restaurant, said in an interview that he was asked whether he practiced his Islamic faith ardently, whether he was interested in Islamist terrorism and whether he had traveled to Afghanistan or similar countries for contacts with jihadist organizations. His only recent foreign travel was to Ibiza for a beach vacation, he said he replied.
The most troubling question from police, Makouh said, was put to the mother and the uncle: Did Bagour induce labor three years ago, so Jihad would be born on Sept. 11? The answer from both was no.
After the police investigation, no terrorism-related charges were brought.
But the prosecutor charged Bagour and her brother with “apology for crime,” which under a 1981 French law carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a $58,000 fine.
“I did it on a lark”
Zeyad Bagour, a bachelor who lives with his sister and two other siblings, said he had trouble understanding what the fuss was about. He bought the shirt without thinking of any political message, he said.
The front already had the words “I am a bomb” printed on it, but he understood that as an expression roughly equivalent to “I am a real looker.” As for the back, he said, he just wanted to put down his nephew’s name and date of birth.
“I did it on a lark,” he recalled, apologizing for any alarm he may have raised. “It wasn’t even meant as a joke.”
For Lagneau, however, the T-shirt was a deliberate call to Islamist jihad. He hired a lawyer and joined the criminal prosecution, making the city what is known in French law as a “civil party,” claiming to have suffered from an alleged crime.
At a four-hour trial March 6, Deputy Prosecutor Olivier Couvignou also portrayed the T-shirt as a deliberate political message.
“There is nothing innocent in these words,” he said, according to news accounts. He asked the judges to impose a fine of $4,000 on the uncle and $1,300 on the mother.
The main punishment, in case of a conviction, would be a criminal record that would make getting a job difficult and would probably land Bouchra and Zeyad Bagour on watch lists in airports around the world, Makouh, the lawyer, pointed out.
Makouh and Bouchra’s lawyer, Gaële Guenoun, argued that neither defendant was a militant and neither intended to broadcast a political message.
After hearing the arguments, the court took the case under advisement and said it will hand down its verdict April 10.