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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

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 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.