French Alps shootings: victim's brother released by police

The only person arrested in the 13-month investigation into the murder of the al-Hilli family in France has been released from bail

The only person to be arrested in the 13-month investigation into the al-Hilli murders was released from bail without charge in Britain yesterday.

He remains, nevertheless, an official suspect in France.

Zaid al-Hilli, 54, was arrested in Surrey last June on suspicion of ordering the Alpine massacre of his brother Saad, a British-Iraqi engineer, and three other people in September 2012.

Surrey Police said: “At this stage there is insufficient evidence to charge him with any criminal offence and no further police action is being taken at this time.” As a result, they said, bail conditions on Mr al-Hilli were being lifted.

Mr al-Hilli has always protested his innocence. Should he now be regarded as clear of all suspicion? No, say French investigators.

The spokesman for the quadruple murder inquiry, the Annecy prosecutor Eric Maillaud, said yesterday that, under British law, Surrey police had no choice but to lift the bail conditions on Mr al-Hilli.

“In France, we would probably not have lifted them,” he said. “But procedures are different in other countries. This does not mean that we are finished with Zaid al-Hilli, nor that he is innocent.

“His status remains that of a suspect. He could be questioned again if the joint French-British investigation team decides that it is necessary.”

Confusing? Yes, but the investigation has been slowed from the beginning by differences in British and French judicial procedures and by grudging, or non-existent,  co-operation from Iraq and the United States.

Saad al-Hilli might have been involved in industrial espionage Saad al-Hilli might have been involved in industrial espionage
French investigators have nothing but praise for the assistance that they have received from Surrey police. They have often, however, been frustrated by the strict habeas corpus rules governing criminal investigations in Britain.

Under the French system, they say, there would have been sufficient circumstantial evidence to place Mr al-Hilli under formal investigation – a step short of a charge. He could then have been kept in custody for interrogation for several weeks.

In Britain, he had to be charged or released after a couple of days. Even his bail conditions could not be renewed indefinitely.

Mr al-Hilli is known to have been involved in a furious dispute with his brother about their father’s £3m to £5m will. This remains one of three official lines of inquiry but no clear evidence against him has been found.

Two other lines of inquiry remain open. The first is that Saad al-Hilli, a satellite engineer, might have been involved in industrial espionage. The second is that the massacre was a targeted hit by unknown persons in Iraq, who wanted to deprive both brothers of their father’s legacy.

In other words, the al-Hilli or Chevaline murders remain, after 13 months, as much a mystery as ever.

On 5 September 2012, Saad al-Hilli, 50, his wife Iqbal, 47, a dentist, and her mother  Suhaila al-Allaf, 74, were found shot in the head in the family BMW estate at a forest lay-by two miles from the village of Chevaline, near Lake Annecy in the French Alps.

The murder scene at Chevaline (Rex Features) The murder scene at Chevaline (Rex Features)
The body of a local cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, 45, lay nearby. The murdered couple’s daughter Zainab al-Hilli, aged 7, was found at the scene with head and shoulder injuries. Her sister, Zeena, 4, was found unharmed eight hours later hiding beneath her dead mother’s legs in the back of the car.

Two other possible explanations – a random attack by a psychopath and a local grudge against Mr Mollier – have been all but dismissed by investigators.

Zaid al-Hilli, a golf course manager from Chessington in Surrey, told the BBC’s Panorama programme last year that he thought that Mr Mollier was the real target. He accused French investigators of “covering up for someone in France in that region… Most crime has local roots.”

This theory, much favoured by sections of the British press, has been “98 per cent” dismissed according to the Annecy prosecutor, Mr Maillaud. Mr Mollier was a foreman welder in a local plant supplying metal to the nuclear industry – not a “nuclear scientist” as claimed in some reports.

He was on a random cycle ride and had not been that way before. Witnesses saw no car or motorbike following him.

The killer is known to have used an antique 7.65mm Luger P06 revolver, issued to the Swiss army and police in the 1920s and 1930s. Part of the handle of the gun was found at the scene.

Three clips of eight bullets were fired in a short time, including at least two bullets in the head of each of the four victims. The use of such an old gun – still common locally but not a weapon of choice for professional hit men – is one of the great remaining mysteries of the investigation.

The behaviour of the gunman was also odd: a mixture of clinical cynicism and panic, of careful targeting and random firing.

Saad al-Hilli and his family were caravanning nearby. According to the surviving daughters, they drove to the lay-by at Le Martinet for a walk in the forest. As Saad and Zainab stood near their car, Sylvain Mollier, arrived in his €5,000 top-of-the range racing bicycle.

Saad al-Hilli may have spoken a few words to Mr Mollier. At any rate, he, Mr Mollier and Zainab are believed to have been close together when a gunman appeared on foot from around the bend beyond the lay-by.

How the lone gunman came to be there is one of the other great mysteries of the case. Had he followed the al-Hillis in another car or on a large, dark motorcycle which was seen on the tracks banned to the public beyond Le Martinet later that afternoon?

Unless he was a random killer, it seems inconceivable that he could have been lying in wait. How could he have known that Saad al-Hilli would come to this out-of-the-way place?

The gunman opened fire on the group of three people, including Zainab. She was wounded in the shoulder. Mollier was also wounded and fell to the ground.

Saad al-Hilli fled to his car, trying to drag Zainab with him. As he got into the driver’s seat, he was shot in his lower back. He reversed the BMW in a half-circle, accidentally dragging Sylvain Mollier under his wheels. In his panic, he jammed the rear wheels into the soft bank.

The gunman approached and shot the three adult occupants of the jammed car through the windows, carefully placing two bullets in each head. He returned to Sylvain Mollier and shot him several more times as he lay on the ground.

He grabbed Zainab, who had remained outside the car, but did not shoot her. He beat her savagely with the handle of his revolver and left her for dead.

Targeted killing? Local grudge? Random slaughter? Whichever way the jigsaw puzzle is put together, there are still large pieces that will not fit.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)