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French police officers acquitted in teens' deaths

RENNES, France -- A French court on Monday acquitted two police officers accused of contributing to the deaths of two teenagers in a blighted Paris suburb a decade ago that prompted weeks of riots across the country.

The verdict raised fears of a new wave of mistrust, anger and violent protests similar to those seen recently in the U.S.

The court in the western city of Rennes ruled that officers Sebastien Gaillemin and Stephanie Klein were not responsible when two teen boys chased by police entered a power substation to hide and were fatally electrocuted in October 2005. A third boy survived the powerful 20,000-volt electric shock with severe burns.

Neither of the officers had a "clear awareness of grave and imminent danger" as required by French law, said judge Nicolas Leger.

The deaths of Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna cast a harsh light on the fate of the isolated suburban housing projects, which are populated by France's poor, many of them with roots in Africa. Over three weeks of rioting, thousands of vehicles were torched, public buildings were burned and thousands of people were arrested. A state of emergency was declared and a curfew was imposed.

The two police officers were facing up to five years in prison had they been convicted of failing to assist someone in danger.

Moments after the verdict was read, a young woman rose in the back of the courtroom and shouted: "The police above the law, as always."

In the evening of Oct. 27, 2005, Gaillemin, 41, was chasing the three teenagers and saw them head toward the power station but did not help them avoid the potentially fatal danger or call emergency services. Instead, he said into his police radio: "If they enter the site, I wouldn't pay much for their skins."

Klein, 38, an inexperienced police intern, was coordinating police radio communications during the tense situation and heard the remark.

Prosecutors repeatedly declined to bring the case against the officers, but were finally ordered to do so by France's highest court. The prosecutor in Rennes, who was among those who originally refused, ultimately requested acquittal.

During the proceedings in March, the presiding judge insisted that the national police as a whole were not on trial. Even so, lawyers for both sides have emphasized the verdict's wider significance.

The victims' families say the lives of 15-year-old Bouna and 17-year-old Zyed could have been saved by the officers, who the court heard knew the boys were in potential danger. The officers insisted they were not to blame.

Several groups in France's troubled suburbs have called for gatherings on Monday after the verdict.

The lengthy judicial procedure in the case has left many with a sense of two-speed justice system and, for some, a latent anger waiting to flare up again. Within minutes, the hashtag #ZyedEtBouna was trending on Twitter in France.

Jean-Pierre Mignard, a lawyer for the families, said the verdict was proof of a "legal apartheid" in France.