French Alps killings: Investigation showcases European police cooperation

The French Alps killings case has drawn in law-enforcement agencies from at least three countries. Such cooperation has become increasingly sophisticated.

Alexis Moro/AP
Gendarmes block access to a killing site near Chevaline, French Alps, Sept. 5. An investigation of the murder a week ago of an Iraqi-born British engineer Saad al-Hilli, his British wife, her Swedish-Iraqi mother, and a local French cyclist, has drawn in law-enforcement agencies from at least three countries.

The investigation of the murder of four people in the French Alps has triggered a frenzy of media coverage jumping from one theory to another. But at another level, the cross-border nature of the case – it has already drawn in enforcement agencies from at least three countries –  has demonstrated the increasing sophistication of European cooperation in law-enforcement matters at a time when other elements of European integration are in crisis.

A French judge and prosecutor were due to arrive in Britain Thursday. A small team of French investigators is already there, helping to find out what led to the shootings a week ago of an Iraqi-born British engineer Saad al-Hilli, his British wife, her Swedish-Iraqi mother, and a local French cyclist.

“This aspect of the [European] project is racing forward and is probably one of the largest areas of cooperation in European decisionmaking when it comes to legal matters,” says Dermot Walsh of the University of Limerick, Ireland, an expert in European criminal law and procedure. “Cooperation in law enforcement is moving very fast.”

Professor Walsh stresses that, contrary to the way the investigation was being portrayed in some reports, the French investigators in the UK were not conducting searches of the Hilli home. Rather, they were simply accompanying British police who were carrying out the searches.

But, he adds: “Generally speaking, having officers operating on the ground in a foreign jurisdiction is something that is fairly new and has developed over the past 10 years, although they have not got to the point where they can, for example, exercise coercive powers,” in other words, powers involving force or the threat of force.

The two young daughters of Mr. Hilli and his wife, Ikbal, survived. Police have spoken briefly to the elder girl, age seven, since she came out of a medically induced coma this week, but a more in-depth talk will have to wait until her doctor gives the OK.

Forty French officers are working on the case, with investigators focusing on three specific areas: Hilli's work, his family, and his native Iraq. The latter has been at the center of considerable attention. The case's French prosecutor, Eric Maillaud, said during a press conference Wednesday a "specialized" team was tasked with examining Hilli's links to the country.

The family is still believed to have been on a camping holiday, with speculation about the murders ranging from suggestions that it was a race-hate crime to a bungled robbery. But exotic theories have been fueled by Hilli’s background as an Iraqi whose family fled Saddam Hussein's regime and work as an engineer reportedly with ties to at least one defense company.

The fourth victim of the shooting on the shores of Lake Annecy, French cyclist Sylvain Mollier, is thought to have been killed after stumbling across the crime.

Ties to Sweden

As well as working with British colleagues, French investigators have been liaising with law enforcement officials in Sweden, who confirmed that a passport discovered on the scene corresponds to a Swedish person living there.

Walsh also pointed out that a key facilitator of cooperation during this case would be the role of French, British, and Swedish officers based at the headquarters of European Union's criminal intelligence agency, Europol, in The Hague.

The latest forensic news to emerge from the case is that French investigators believe that the weapon used was a 7.65mm automatic pistol, which they reportedly described as being of an old-fashioned caliber but one that can still be wielded by special forces. 

“Because a range of nationalities are involved, there will be sharing of information, and there is already a very good network of forensic labs in existence involving the police and Interpol,” says Philip Boyce, a firearms expert at Forensic Scientific, a UK-based independent defense consultancy and forensic services provider.

In an investigation like this, Boyce stresses the importance of Interpol’s Ballistic Information Network (IBIN), the only large-scale, international ballistic data-sharing network in the world, which is available to all 190 Interpol member countries. It can identify links between pairs of spent bullets and cartridge cases within minutes.

“It’s actually based in Paris, so from a ballistics point of view, it’s likely that the French will be requesting that samples are loaded on to those computers and searched against those in other countries,” he adds. “The French themselves use a different computer system for their first generic findings and searches. They will look at previous shootings of the same caliber, but if they don’t get a hit there then they can access other networks.”

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