When the French school teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded in Paris in October 2020, legal authorities moved quickly to detain and imprison those that could be implicated in the killing. Eagerly seeking a scapegoat, one person they arrested was Abdelhakim Sefrioui- a prolific community activist and Imam of Le Ulis Mosque in his hometown. Here we hear from Abdelhakim’s wife not only about what he stands for as an individual, but how we can support his struggle for justice.

As of July 2022, Abdelhakim is still being detained and has not been charged with any crime, repeated applications for his release have been denied by the courts, without much reasoning being provided. 

If anybody were to describe Abdelhakim, they would first say he is a man of faith. He not only has a deep and loving commitment to his own faith but has a curiosity and love for others as a result of his own extensive travels. Hailing from a well-known family in Fez, Morocco, Abdelhakim has always valued education and discovery; learning about the world around him and how best he can make a positive impact on it. He has always been driven by a passion to relieve the oppressed and his adult life can be characterised by a desire to challenge injustice in all its forms.

Despite lofty ambitions, Abdelhakim is also a practical man, committed to his own personal growth and active learning. In the early 1980s, he arrived in France to complete his studies in Economics, Computer Science and Marketing. After working as a marketing engineer for many years, a passion for education led Abdelhakim to switch career paths and retrain as a Marketing teacher in the French education system.

Establishing himself as a force for his community

While studying and working, Abdelhakim has always been involved in community projects and activism since he came to France. With a charismatic and energising character, Abdelhakim worked in projects involving student groups, mosques, inter-faith dialogue and community support networks. Wherever there was an opportunity to uplift people on a local level, Abdelhakim got involved. On an international level, Abdelhakim raised awareness of the plight of the Palestinians, drawing attention to their ongoing struggle and persecution.

Serving the needs of his people, Abdelhakim became imam of the mosque of his hometown Le Ulis and remained in his position before internal politics forced him out of his position. Abdelhakim formed the “Shaykh Yassin Collective” on the day of the assassination of Palestinian leader Ahmed Yassin in 2004, and used this group to advocate for the Palestinian cause. He also remained active and aware of the changing political climate in France and the government’s increasing hostility towards its Muslim citizens.

Abdelhakim had built a strong reputation as someone who supports the interests of his community, and it was for this reason, he was contacted by the parents of a child who was left upset by images they were shown in school attempting to depict Prophet Muhammad. Abdelhakim intervened to support the parents and their concerns, however during a meeting, found the school’s attitude belligerent and uncooperative.

Scapegoat for the French state

When – a few short days later – Abdelhakim learned of the death of teacher Samuel Paty, he was horrified not only of the killing that took place, but the particularly gruesome way in which it was carried out. Abdelhakim was swiftly arrested and assumed to be guilty of involvement in Paty’s murder.

With little legal recourse, the first months in detention were the most challenging for Abdelhakim, he was left with unanswered questions and accusations he was not allowed to defend himself from. He was held in solitary confinement and was only allowed to see his lawyers once a week, and permitted to speak to his two sons once a day for an extremely limited duration. Trying to draw attention to the unjust conditions of his imprisonment, Abdelhakim went on a 12-day hunger strike in protest. With ongoing health problems, Abdelhakim was denied his essential medication for 5 months meaning he was unable to maintain sleep or rest at night-time.

All of Abdelhakim’s family have been left reeling since his arrest and detention. They are left in shock, fear and anxiety about his fate, and about whether he will ever be given the right to a fair trial. To add to their concerns, the media leaked private information about the family that put them in danger, increasing the risk of reprisal attacks. The family have also suffered greatly financially, as Abdelhakim’s two sons and a family friend have had their bank accounts closed as a result of their association with him.

Another salvo in the state’s assault on Muslims

The narrative of his character and the history of his tireless community activism has been recast to portray him as a hateful menace to French society, somebody with a nefarious ideology that is incompatible with humanity and compassion. This is not only driven by shameless desire to scapegoat but satisfies the public’s need to view Muslims as a dangerous minority, incompatible with French values. Those who were already hostile to the causes he championed have profited greatly from his detention, now anybody that advocates openly for Palestinian rights or Muslim civil liberties is smeared as perverse and threatening.

For these reasons, Abdelhakim has become the ideal culprit for a country already entrenched with Islamophobic public discourse. Abdelhakim has always been clear, he has maintained his innocence from Day One. He views his imprisonment as politically motivated and unjust by any definition. At the very least, there is a wholesale lack of evidence of his involvement and various judges throughout the process have contended with this fact.

Abdelhakim is not one to despair; however, his spirit cannot be crushed. While imprisoned, he focuses on strengthening both his physical and mental health. He is often fasting, exercising and spends a good portion of his day reading and engaged in active learning. This is something that has not gone unnoticed even by the prison staff who originally had great disdain for him. Abdelhakim didn’t allow the conduct of his character to falter, and while showing respect (and encouraging others to also), he even managed to win over the affections of the usually stoic wardens.

Abdelhakim is somebody who understands the value of time and how best to utilise it for his benefit. When we recently enquired about how he was faring behind bars, he enthusiastically responded, “The days are too short, I don’t have enough time to do everything I have planned!” When it comes to being confined in his cell, he says “I feel the most free, when they close the door I am in my own world.”

The facts that the world needs to know

When it comes to the world however, there are many things everybody needs to know about Abdelhakim’s case. Firstly, it is his absolute innocence. He had nothing to do with Samuel Paty’s murder and condemns it in the strongest possible terms. He has always stood up and fought against injustice and all forms of violence and coercion, and the killing of Samuel Paty is no exception.

The ongoing investigation into the allegations that he was involved in Paty’s killing has turned over no evidence or connection between Abdelhakim and the killer. There are many uncomfortable and jarring questions that the French legal system is avoiding answering. There are other parties who are heavily implicated in the killing yet remain free and untouched by law enforcement. There are many holes in the case and too many things do not add up.

As his family, we ask that the struggle of Abdelhakim is publicised far and wide. Simply, not enough people know the real story of what is happening to him. We ask for a timely, thorough, and fair legal investigation sticking closely to the legal facts. The climate in France now is turning, and the Muslims of this country are suffering the adverse consequences of this. To rise up and improve our condition, we need to stay firm and advocate for our community (from within and outside of France) by all effective legal means. The power to change things lies in our hands and in the spirit of Abdelhakim’s entire public service, we must stand up, unite, and ensure justice overcomes all efforts to the contrary.

Together, we are capable of monumental change, for individuals like Abdelhakim and far beyond.

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)