The strange case of a man called Lies

The strange case of a man called Lies is the perfect summer story for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government. Too perfect, perhaps.

Lies (pronounced Lee-Ess) Hebbadj shot to prominence in April when his wife – or rather one of his four “wives” – was fined for driving a car through the city of Nantes while wearing a full-face veil or burka. Mr Hebbadj, 35, has since become the unwilling symbol – or justification – for President Sarkozy’s determination not only to ban the burka but to strip some foreign-born criminals of their French nationality.

Mr Hebbadj, who runs a chain of butcher’s and grocery shops near Nantes, was placed under judicial investigation last month for fraudulently claiming social security for four women and 15 children with whom he lives in a “compound” of three houses. Following a complaint by a former “wife”, he has now been placed under formal investigation for a much more serious accusation: “aggravated rape”.

Mr Hebbadj’s lawyer, Cécile de Oliveira, accused the government yesterday of “manipulating” old and invented accusations to make the Algerian-born businessman a symbol of its campaign to link immigration and crime. In a gaffe at the weekend, the interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, described Mr Hebbadj as a man who should be “presumed guilty”. What further proof was needed, Ms Oliiveira asked, that this was a politically motivated investigation?

Mr Hebbadj is described by his associates in Nantes as a “devout businessman”, who happens to live with one wife and three mistresses. (Efforts by the French authorities to accuse him of polygamy have come to nothing.)

According to the French security services, Mr Hebbadj has links with Tabligh, a radical, Pakisani-based Islamic movement. He has, security sources say, made frequent visits to Pakistan and Britain.

According to his local muslim critics, Mr Habbadj runs his own Islamic sect which is more interested in women and fast cars than in politics or religion. “He doesn’t have very developed views on Islam,” one local muslim leader said. “For him, religion is a costume that he puts on to seduce women.”

Mr Hebbadj’s former wife, Nina Gomez – a converted Muslim married and divorced under Islamic law – insists that his activities go much further. She has accused Mr Hebbadj on her blog of beating and raping her while pregnant. Ms Gomez also claims that he has tricked and coerced young women, including herself, into sexual slavery in Saudi Arabia.

Mr Hebbadj was arrested at the weekend and confronted with his former “wife”, who now lives outside France. After hearing both sides of the story, the public prosecutor decided that there was sufficient evidence to place Mr Hebbadj under formal investigation for “aggravated rape”.

His lawyer, Ms Oliveira, complained that the allegations were first investigated by police three years ago and allowed to drop. “Extraordinary police and judicial efforts” had been made, she said, to resurrect the kind of wife versus husband allegations which rarely led to a succesful prosecution.

Two of Mr Hebbadj’s “wives” also flew to his defence yesterday. Miriana Hebbadj – the only woman to whom is he is married under French law – said that her husband was being turned into a “monster”, a “political toy” and a “whipping boy”. In an interview with the Nantes regional newspaper, Presse-Océan, she said that Mr Hebbadj was, in fact, “a remarkable husband.”

“He is a happy, dynamic man," she said. "He is a gentle, caring, responsible father.”

She was interviewed with one of Mr Hebbadj’s religious wives – or, according to French law, live-in mistresses - Sandrine Mouleres, the woman convicted earlier this year of driving whilst wearing a full-length veil. Both women were pictured wearing niqabs, revealing only their eyes.

It was Mr Hebbadj who persuaded his wife to go to the press in April and use her traffic conviction to attack the French government’s plans to ban the burka or niqab. This is a decision that he may since have come to regret.

Ms Mouleres, who converted to Islam when she went through a religious marriage with Mr Hebbadj, said yesterday that she feared the government had brought pressure on the ex-wife, Nina Gomez. “It’s not impossible that...they encouraged her to make a formal complaint, something she had not done until now,” she said.

The interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, was challenged at a press coinference yesterday on his description of Mr Hebbadj as a man who should be “presumed guilty”. He refused to back down. He said that this was his personal opinion, not an official judgement. “When someone has twice been placed under investigation for serious offences, it is reasonable to pose certain questions,” he said.