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'I'm suffocating': French police investigated over Paris delivery driver death

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Doria Chouviat (C) and her relatives at a rally in January for her late husband, Cedric Chouviat, a delivery driver who died after being held during a police check.
Doria Chouviat (C) and her relatives at a rally in January for her late husband, Cedric Chouviat, a delivery driver who died after being held during a police check.   -   Copyright  GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT / AFP
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Four French police officers are being investigated over the death of a delivery driver who was pinned to the ground and reportedly cried "I'm suffocating" over and over again.

Cédric Chouviat, a 42-year-old father of five, died from a heart attack after being arrested following an altercation with police near the Eiffel Tower in Paris in early January.

French media outlets Le Monde and Mediapart say they have had access to the driver's mobile phone recordings of the incident with police. Insults were exchanged on both sides over several minutes, and the dispute degenerated to the point where he was held to the ground wearing his helmet.

The arrest itself, involving three officers, lasted 22 seconds, during which Chouviat said "stop", "I'm stopping" and then seven times the phrase "I'm suffocating", according to the report and an expert assessment seen by AFP.

The scooter driver, from the northern Paris suburb of Levallois, was taken to hospital in a critical condition and was pronounced dead two days later. The results of a postmortem said he had suffocated with "fracture of the larynx", and Paris prosecutors opened a manslaughter inquiry.

The four officers implicated were taken into custody on June 17 and questioned as part of the investigation. According to French media they have been summoned for more questioning in early July.

Investigators are said to have analysed 13 videos taken of the scene, including nine filmed by the driver himself, three recorded by one of the four police officers present, and another from a motorist.

GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT / AFP
People take part in a rally on January 12, 2020 in Levallois, near Paris, for Cédric Chouviat.GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT / AFP

In the aftermath of Chouviat's death his family denounced a "police blunder" caused by arrest techniques they said were "dangerous". They called for the offences to be upgraded, and for the officers to be suspended.

Several days after the event, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said the postmortem raised "legitimate questions, to which responses (should) be brought with all due transparency".

The death in May of George Floyd in the United States has revived a debate over police violence and racial discrimination in France. Protests have focused on the death of Adama Traoré, a young black man who died in police custody in 2016.

Earlier this month the interior minister said that the controversial "chokehold" sometimes used in arrests would be "abandoned". However the government then backtracked in the face of protests by police unions, and said the technique would no longer be taught, but stopped short of a total ban.

Lawyers representing Cédric Chouviat's family strongly criticised French police at a news conference on Tuesday morning, while his daughter said she did not understand why the four officers had not been suspended.

Appealing for calm, the lawyers demanded more serious charges against the officers, and an end to police arrest techniques involving "strangling and stomach tackling", adding that there was a spiral of events in France that quickly needed to be halted.

One of the lawyers, Arié Alimi, also condemned police culture he claimed involved provocation with insults and targeted working class communities and in particular Black and Arab people.

Responding to the news conference on BFMTV, Denis Jacob from the union "Alternative Police" accused the lawyers of orchestrating the case, saying the legal process should be allowed to run its course to get to the bottom of what happened.