French couple sentenced to life for murdering au pair in London

Parents of murdered French au-pair Sophie Lionnet, Catherine Devallonne (2R) and Patrick Lionnet (L) leave the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court, in central London on June 26, 2018 after hearing the sentence handed down to their daughter’s murderers. (AFP)
Updated 26 June 2018
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French couple sentenced to life for murdering au pair in London

LONDON: A French couple living in Britain who tortured and murdered their au pair and tried to dispose of the body in a back garden bonfire have been sentenced to life in prison with a minimum of 30 years.
The Old Bailey court in London sentenced Sabrina Kouider, who is undergoing psychiatric treatment, and Ouissem Medouni for the September 2017 killing of 21-year-old Sophie Lionnet, after a two-month trial ended on May 24 with their convictions.
“Sophie was a kind, gentle and good natured girl,” said Judge Nicholas Hilliard. “The suffering and the torture you put her through before her death was prolonged and without pity.”
He added: “I’m sure on all the evidence you were both involved.”
The jury deliberated for a week before unanimously convicting Kouider and ruling by a majority decision of 10 to 2 that her partner Medouni was also guilty.
Both had denied murdering Lionnet, from Troyes in eastern France, although they had admitted to burning her body.
The court heard how the couple had interrogated and tortured Lionnet over their belief she was conspiring with one of Kouider’s ex-boyfriends — Mark Walton, a former member of Irish band Boyzone — who they claimed sexually abused members of their family.
“She died as a result of purposeful and sustained violence, and not by accident,” state prosecutor Aisling Hosein said when they were convicted.
“They were both jointly involved and came up with a plan to try and destroy her body and escape responsibility for this horrendous crime.”
Kouider, who has two children, apologized to her victim in a letter read out in court Tuesday.
“I’m suffering every day thinking of you and what happened to you that dreadful night,” she said.
“I only wish I could turn the clock back, it never happened and you would be alive with us today.”
Icah Peart, Kouider’s lawyer, said his client was suffering from an “overwhelming and obsesssional fear” over Walton and “everything she did was absolutely driven by delusional disorder.”
Medouni’s lawyer Orlando Pownall insisted Kouider had been the “dominant” party and his client was “indoctrinated.”
The victim’s mother called the duo “monsters” in a statement read in court last month.
Catherine Devallonne said she “fell into shock and was hospitalized” after police broke the news that her daughter, whom she described as a “reserved young girl,” had been killed.
“I’ve been living this nightmare ever since,” she added. “Those monsters beat her to death. They left her hungry. They took away her dignity and eventually her life.”
Police described how Lionnet was subjected to a “series of ‘interrogations’... over a 12-day period, in a bid to force Sophie to admit various false crimes they had accused her of.”
Kouider, who admitted during the trial that she hit Lionnet “really bad” with an electrical cable, filmed some of the sessions. They had planned to hand them over to police as evidence of the au pair’s guilt.
“We will never know the full extent of the horrors Sophie had to endure,” said Scotland Yard detective Domenica Catino.
“Even in death, the torture, abuse and humiliation continued by placing her partially-clothed body into a suitcase with no regard for even a semblance of a burial.
“It was clear that together the couple made the decision to torture Sophie and then in a cowardly fashion blamed each other for her death,” added the detective.
Firefighters discovered Medouni trying to burn Lionnet’s body on September 20 at the couple’s home in Southfields, south-west London.
Neighbours alerted the authorities after noticing smoke and a “horrible” smell coming from the property.
Firefighter Thomas Hunt told the court that he confronted Medouni after he found human fingers and a nose as he put out the fire.


Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

Updated 22 July 2019
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Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

COLOS, Portugal: More than 1,000 firefighters battled a major wildfire Monday amid scorching temperatures in Portugal, where forest blazes wreak destruction every summer.
About 90% of the fire area in the Castelo Branco district, 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) northeast of the capital Lisbon, was brought under control during cooler overnight temperatures, according to local Civil Protection Agency commander Pedro Nunes.
But authorities said they expected heat in and winds to increase again in the afternoon, so all firefighting assets remained in place. Forests in the region are tinder-dry after weeks with little rain.
The Portuguese Civil Protection Agency said 321 vehicles and eight water-dumping aircraft were deployed to tackle the blaze, which has raced through thick woodlands.
Nunes told reporters that the fire, in its third day, has injured 32 people, one seriously.
Police said they were investigating what caused the fire amid suspicions it may have been started deliberately.
Temperatures were forecast to reach almost 40 C (104 F) Monday — prolonging a spell of blistering weather that is due to hit northern Europe late this week.
Recent weeks have also seen major wildfires in Spain, Greece and Germany. European Union authorities have warned that wildfires are “a growing menace” across the continent.
In May, forest fires also plagued Mexico and Russia.
Huge wildfires have long been a summer fixture in Portugal.
Residents of villages and hamlets in central Portugal have grown accustomed to the summer blazes, which destroy fruit trees, olive trees and crops in the fields.
In the hamlet of Colos, 50-year-old beekeeper Antonio Pires said he had lost half of his beehives in the current wildfire. Pires sells to mainly Portuguese and German clients, but also to Brazil and China.
“(I lost) 100 out of 230 (hives), so almost half,” Pires said. “A lot of damage.”
The country’s deadliest fire season came in 2017, when at least 106 people were killed.
The average annual area charred by wildfires in Portugal between 2010 and 2016 was just over 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres). That was more than in Spain, France, Italy or Greece — countries which are significantly bigger than Portugal.
Almost 11,500 firefighters are on standby this year, most of them volunteers. Volunteers are not uncommon in fire brigades in Europe, especially in Germany where more than 90% are volunteers.
Experts and authorities have identified several factors that make Portugal so particularly vulnerable to forest blazes. Addressing some of them is a long-term challenge.
The population of the Portuguese countryside has thinned as people have moved to cities in search of a better life. That means woodland has become neglected, especially as many of those left behind are elderly, and the forest debris is fuel for wildfires.
Large areas of central and northern Portugal are covered in dense, unbroken stretches of forest on hilly terrain. A lot of forest is pine and eucalyptus trees, both of which burn fiercely.
Environmentalists have urged the government to limit the area of eucalyptus, which burns like a torch. But it is a very valuable crop for Portugal’s important paper pulp industry, which last year posted sales worth 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion). The government says it is introducing restrictions gradually.
Experts say Portugal needs to develop a diversified patchwork of different tree species, some of them more fire-resistant and offering damper, shaded.
Climate change has become another challenge, bringing hotter, drier and longer summers. The peak fire season used to run from July 1 to Sept. 30. Now, it starts in June and ends in October.
After the 2017 deaths, the government introduced a raft of measures. They included using goats and bulldozers to clear woodland 10 meters (33 feet) either side of country roads. Property owners also have to clear a 50-meter (164-feet) radius around an isolated house, and 100 meters (328 feet) around a hamlet.
Emergency shelters and evacuation routes have been established at villages and hamlets. Their church bells aim to toll when a wildfire is approaching.
With 98% of blazes caused by human hand, either by accident or on purpose, officials have also been teaching people how to safely burn stubble and forest waste. Police, army and forest service patrols are also increased during the summer.