Murder in the Alps revisits true crime 10 years later
The new three-part true crime documentary airs on Channel 4 this weekend.
This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
On the morning of 6th September 2012, while Zaid al-Hilli was eating breakfast at his Surrey home, he heard a news report about a British family that had been killed in France. “I remember thinking it was very sad, then I showered, dressed and went to work,” he recalls.
Only later that day did he learn that the family involved was his own, and that the scale of the tragedy was almost unimaginable: Zaid’s brother Saad, his wife Iqbal and her mother Suhaila al-Allaf had all been shot at gunpoint in their car in a remote beauty spot a few miles from Lake Annecy in the French Alps.
The couple’s eldest daughter, Zainab, seven, had been shot, pistol-whipped and left for dead. Zainab’s terrified four-year-old sister Zeena was discovered inside the car, sheltering under the skirt of her deceased mother, eight hours after French police first arrived.
Alongside the car, a French cyclist called Sylvain Mollier had also been assassinated.
The brutal and senseless deaths of a holidaying British family made headlines around the world, but Zaid’s grief was quickly compounded by another horror, as he found himself placed under suspicion.
“All of a sudden you are at the heart of a storm,” Zaid, now 63, recalls. “You’re trying to understand what happened, then the next minute you are being accused of something you know nothing about.’’
The approaching 10-year anniversary of the tragedy in September is one reason why Zaid has agreed to take part in a three-part Channel 4 documentary looking at the still unsolved murders. “I needed to tell my side of the story, to show how much this very hurtful episode in our lives affected me and my loved ones,” says Zaid.
A genial, articulate man, Zaid’s anger at what he experienced remains palpable to this day, along with his grief. The al-Hilli brothers were close, a bond forged by fleeing their home in Iraq for the UK in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s power grab in 1968. “We did not want to leave, but we had to,” says Zaid. “Before then my uncle was imprisoned and tortured. He came out of prison brain-damaged. You felt like you were always being watched.”
Three years younger than him, Saad, who Zaid fondly describes as a “rascal’’, was swifter to adjust to life in the UK. “He was more outgoing, he made friends a lot more quickly,’’ Zaid reflects. “I’m the quiet one.’’
Both brothers ultimately settled here, raising their families not far from each other in Surrey. Saad, who was 50 when he was killed, worked as a design engineer for a technology company, while Zaid found success as an accountant.
He was at work when he received a call from a friend telling him that the family he had heard about on the news bulletin that morning was in fact his brother and his sister-in-law as well as her mother. “I was thinking it was impossible, and I went to the nearest police station hoping to hear it wasn’t them,’’ he remembers.
Surrey Police confirmed his worst fears, in circumstances that were hard to fathom: at least 21 bullets had been fired in what appeared to be a hitman-style execution and French police believed the al-Hillis were the target.
“They immediately dismissed Sylvain Mollier as being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but at the same time said they didn’t have any answers,’’ Zaid says. “These are two contradictory statements. How can you dismiss something completely, while saying at the same time that you don’t know what’s happened?’’
It wasn’t long before the police crystallised their view: after hours of co-operating willingly in interviews as a witness, Zaid was publicly named by French police as a suspect. “I did something like 30 hours of interviews, and I did them in good faith – but what I was saying privately to them, in confidence, was being broadcast against me,’’ he recalls.
In particular, the disclosure that he and his brother had argued over their inheritance from their late parents in the run-up to Saad’s death was subsequently presented to the public as a “violent disagreement” by the police. ‘‘The word ‘dispute’ gave them a reason to continue with this bizarre witch hunt,’’ says Zaid now. “As far as I am concerned, there was no dispute. We had a disagreement.’’ Zaid also had a cast-iron alibi, but this did nothing to stop the French state prosecutor Eric Maillaud publicly casting doubts on his innocence.
Besieged night and day by media, and unable to see his nieces, who were under armed guard in a French hospital, Zaid struggled not to succumb to paranoia.
“You start becoming suspicious. My real worry was whether they were going to produce false evidence,’’ he says. “It was horrendous. I think the thing that kept me sane was going to work, and the support of my colleagues and friends. The people who know me didn’t believe any of it from the beginning.’’
Today, Zaid is clear that he believes there was a racist element to the investigation. “From the way things were handled, I think it is always easy to blame the outsider, the foreigner. I think the French authorities would have behaved completely differently if the names were different,’’ he says.
He points out that other theories bandied around by the press seemed to be rooted in distrust of the family’s nationality: Saad’s work for a satellite technology company led to him being accused of being a spy under surveillance from the secret service, and the discovery of a Swiss bank account containing nearly a million euros in the name of Saad and Zaid’s father was cited as dirty money linked to Saddam’s regime. “They even used the fact that Zainab was found outside the vehicle, suggesting her father had left her outside to save himself,’’ says Zaid. ‘‘It’s such a despicable statement.’’
Nine months after his family were slaughtered and, following months of unsuccessful attempts by the French police to have Zaid brought to France for questioning, he was arrested by Surrey Police on suspicion of conspiracy to murder. On the advice of his lawyer he gave a ‘no comment’ interview. “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you just have to stand your ground,’’ he says now. ‘‘I wasn’t going to be intimidated. Our family were intimidated in 1970 [in Iraq] and I wasn’t going to be intimidated again by anyone.’’
After 24 hours in custody, Zaid was released on bail, but it would be another seven months before Surrey Police announced there was insufficient evidence to bring charges. “There was huge relief, of course, but also anger at what they had put us through,” he says. He is particularly damning of the French police, pointing out the catalogue of errors that hampered their investigation – from lost evidence to contaminated forensics – as well as their blinkered thinking.
His frustration is echoed by retired Surrey detective Mark Preston, who speaks candidly in the documentary about tensions between their force and their French counterparts over the latter’s dogged focus on Zaid.
For his own part, Zaid has always believed that Sylvain Mollier was the true target, citing an alleged “vow of silence” by those close to him and a subsequent cover-up by the French authorities. “I think they knew from day one what happened, and they have hidden it,’’ he insists. ‘‘The whole thing was a deception. It means it’s very difficult to move on sometimes. I still live it every day – and my brother is with me every day.’’
He takes consolation in his own family, and in the company of his nieces – now thriving teenagers who live under a different identity. “They’re lovely girls,” he says. “They’re doing well and they are happy.” Zaid, too, has found his own happiness after moving from Surrey to the coast. “I’ve got the sea, I’ve got nice countryside, I’ve got good friends and grandchildren,” he says. “Sometimes you have to be grateful for what you’ve got in life.”
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