New twist over shooting of jewel robber in French city of Nice

The dead man’s sister, Alexandra . Eric Gaillard / Reuters
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In internet chatter, 67-year-old Stéphane Turk has mostly been portrayed as the good guy, a hard-working member of France’s “petit commerçant” or small businessman class, in despair at the failure of police and the courts to offer protection from hoodlums.

Antony Asli, the dead 19-year-old, was not only the bad guy, with a wretched record of criminality. On several online forums, contributors leapt to the conclusion that – because of his surname – he must have had Maghrebin roots, therefore fitting the easy stereotype that fuels countless conversations in France. Immigrants or their offspring equals crime.

But as details of both men have filtered out, the story has become less straightforward.

First, Mr Turk turned out not to be French at all by birth but to have origins in Lebanon.

Then Stéphane – the spelling initially assumed by French media to be correct – was amended to Stephan, the loss of the last letter making the name appear a little less French, a little less attractive as a candidate for anti-immigration far-right support.

Now, it has emerged that even this was an adopted first name. Mr Turk was not originally even Stephan but a Muslim who was born Mustapha Turk and, before making a new life on the French Riviera 30 years ago, worked as a pharmacist’s assistant in Beirut. There, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he was entrusted with an important role by Yasser Arafat, later to become first president of the Palestinian National Authority.

The French regional newspaper Nice-Matin has published what it discovered of Mr Turk’s “multiple lives” as part of a four-page review of l’affaire du bijoutier (the case of the jeweller).

In the same investigation, the newspaper’s reporters established that the dead robber, Asli, was not – as many racist comments on social networks had implied – of North African origin but the son of a gypsy mother and Lebanese-Corsican father. In fact, police officers in the Carros suburb of Nice where he grew up knew him as “the gypsy”.

From the comments of relatives and friends has evolved a picture of a lawless but often gentle young man, about to become the father of a child he would not live to see. To his elder sister, Alexandra, he had a mixture of “angels and demons in his head” but, despite his delinquency, did not deserve the manner of his death.

As became clear in the earliest stages of a police inquiry that leaves Mr Turk accused of voluntary homicide, Asli seems to have been posing no threat at the moment he was shot in the back on the morning of September 11. He was trying to escape with a haul of jewellery on a stolen scooter driven by an accomplice, who is still on the run more than a month later.

Mr Turk, who was not licensed to possess firearms, claims he never intended to kill Asli but initially fired only in the hope of bursting the scooter’s tyres so the fleeing robbers could be caught. The Nice public prosecutor says he is satisfiedMr Turk’s actions were deliberate at a time when he was no longer in danger, though the jeweller is also reported to have said his third and last shot was a reaction to the belief he was about to be fired on.

What Nice-Matin disclosed about the past life of Mr Turk does not cast him in a bad light, except perhaps in the eyes of Israelis and their supporters. It does show that he is no stranger to conflict, at least at a political level.

When Mr Turk was living in his native Lebanon, Arafat was chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. He became a loyal ally of the PLO chief and, after the Israeli invasion, led a small faction known as Ansar Sawra or companions of the revolution, according to Antoine Sfeir, a Lebanese-born French specialist on the Arab world and director of a quarterly publication, Les Cahiers de l’Orient (Notebook of the East).

Mr Sfeir said: “This was a small but important organisation made up of intellectuals and PLO supporters who attempted to resist the Israeli invasion. I had left Lebanon in 1976 but was back there as a journalist at that time and knew him then.”

Nice-Matin speculated that when Arafat was finally forced to leave the country, he was able to put to useful purpose his good relations with France to facilitate the political exile of a number of his friends, Mustapha Turk among them.

Mr Sfeir says he cannot confirm this, though Mr Turk had certainly been among the people who served the cause led by Arafat. He also had contacts of his own, as a member of a well-known family from the Beirut bourgeoisie.

Once settled in Nice, Mr Sfeir says, Mr Turk “completely abandoned politics and, to my knowledge, never set foot again in Lebanon”.

To this description, the eldest of Mr Turk’s four sons, Ahmed, has added the assertion that his father’s activities in Lebanon were entirely political, “not as a soldier”. Mr Sfeir accepts that this was the case.

In Nice, Mr Turk learned the jeweller’s trade and opened his small shop, La Turquoise, close to both the Notre-Dame basilica and the mosque where he worshipped.

As Christian Estrosi, the centre-right mayor of Nice, also an MP, has observed, he was well-liked and known for a willingness to do favours for other shopkeepers. He obtained French citizenship only four years ago after years of trying.

On the morning of September 11, he was opening up when the two young robbers burst in, assaulted him, ordered him to open his safe and ran off with jewellery valued at €30,000 (just under Dh150,000).

It was hardly a crime to rival the big jewellery heists that have been carried out in the nearby resort of Cannes. But it was not the first time Mr Turk’s shop had been targeted. He followed the pair as far as his doorway, dropped to his knees and opened fire as they rode off on a T-Max 500 scooter. Asli fell dying into the roadway.

Whether the jeweller’s actions amounted to legitimate self-defence, murder or something in between will be for a court to decide. The French president, Francois Hollande, aware of the wave of popular sympathy and in many cases open support for Mr Turk, says he understands the anger and exasperation of victims of crime while stressing: “It’s up to the justice system to deliver justice, and no one else.”

Mr Turk is on bail, fitted with an electronic tag and living under house arrest away from Nice. He is fighting an order preventing him from talking publicly, but his lawyer says the challenge is based purely on principle since he has resolved to say nothing further in any case.

Previously, after two days under arrest, he says that he regrets Asli’s death but had merely sought to defend himself. He also questions the role of Asli’s parents in the upbringing of a young man who, by 19, had 14 convictions for crimes including theft, criminal damage, receiving stolen goods and insulting behaviour.

Eric Bedos, the Nice prosecutor, rejects Mr Turk’s explanation. “It is my belief he shot with the intention of causing death,” he says. “When he fired, his life was no longer in danger.”

Choosing his words less formally, Asli’s father, Pascal, says his son was “shot like a pigeon”.

Mr Asli resents the suggestion that a lack of paternal discipline contributed to his son’s drift in criminality. His daughter, Alexandra, has described demonstrations in Nice in favour of Mr Turk as “scandalous and obscene”, adding: “ I do not forgive him. He shot a kid in the back. He’s a traitor, a coward, a murderer.”

But in the animated public and political debate that has continued in the weeks following the shooting, opinion has divided unevenly.

A Facebook group declaring support for Mr Turk has attracted 1.6 millions “likes”, its anonymous creator angrily denying any manipulation of figures. Another, denouncing support for “this criminal” as shameful, has received endorsements from only about 100 visitors.

As the Turk and Asli families await the outcome of the judicial process with opposing visions of justice, one online comment, signed F Delacroix, seems to sum up why so many ordinary French people refuse to condemn the jeweller who took the law so violently into his own hands.

“French law is not adapted to the new thug delinquency,” he writes. “Prisons are full and these ‘small delinquents’ are left in the streets with a naughty-naughty finger pointing. So they continue until they use their weapon or are shot like this case.

“Everybody is scared and frustrated as these small criminals are never punished by the law … France’s justice system is sick, resulting in the public admiring people taking justice into their hands.”