French pilot says he was tied to firing target in hazing ritual

FILE PHOTO: The French flag is pictured on a Mirage 2000 fighter jet, manufactured by Dassault Aviation, at Saint-Dizier Air Base as the French Air Force celebrates 20,000 days of uninterrupted nuclear warning and the completion of a new round of Strategic Air Force (SAF) modernization in Saint-Dizier, France, October 4, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

PARIS (Reuters) - A French air force pilot has filed a criminal complaint alleging that as part of a hazing ritual he was tied to a target on a firing range while fighter planes flew overhead and fired off munitions, his lawyer told Reuters on Saturday.

The complaint did not identify any of the people alleged to have carried out the hazing, or say how many of them were involved. Reuters was not able to independently establish the identities of those responsible for the incident.

Colonel Stephane Spet, a spokesman for the French air force, said an internal inquiry had been ordered by air force command and those responsible had been punished.

The most severe punishment was restriction to barracks, Spet said. He did not say how many people had received this punishment, or for how many days.

Spet said that the pilot's safety was never in danger.

The pilot said in the complaint, which was seen by Reuters, that the hazing occurred in March 2019, soon after he arrived at a combat fighter unit at the Solenzara air base on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica.

The pilot had a hood put over his head, and was forced into the back of a pick-up truck by several colleagues who drove him to the firing range, according to the complaint.

Photos, which were included in the complaint, showed a man in military fatigues with his legs and hands bound, attached to the firing range target with heavy-duty nylon straps.

Video footage, which is cited in the complaint and was provided to Reuters by the pilot's lawyer, Frederic Berna, also showed combat jets making several low passes nearby.

The complaint alleges that, during some of these passes, the pilot tied to the target could hear the sound of live munitions being fired from the aircraft.

Spet did not dispute the authenticity of the images, but he said they created the mistaken impression that the aircraft were directing fire at the pilot who was tied to the target.

He said that the firing the pilot heard was from aircraft that were on a training exercise at a different location, and that the closest any munition round came to him was about one kilometre (0.6 miles).

Berna said his client did not want his name disclosed publicly because of privacy concerns. Reuters has seen the pilot's name in the complaint.

Berna said the photos and video footage cited in the complaint were filmed by service members who were present, and the images later shared in a WhatsApp group chat. Members of the group chat then shared the images with the pilot filing the complaint, the lawyer said.

Asked why his client waited until now to file the complaint, Berna said the pilot had initially been in denial about the gravity of what he experienced, and did not want to challenge the military authorities.

He raised the issue with his superiors at the end of 2020, the lawyer said, and decided to file the criminal complaint when he felt the military was not responding adequately.

Spet said the air force command was informed of the incident in January this year, and ordered an internal inquiry.

"The pilots responsible for staging this were severely punished in April 2021, with measures that went as far as restriction to barracks," Spet said.

Berna said neither he nor his client had any knowledge of any punishment imposed on service personnel over the incident.

In a separate statement, the air force said it condemned any actions that harm the physical or mental wellbeing of its personnel, and that it would cooperate with any criminal investigation.

A spokeswoman for the Solenzara base referred Reuters to the air force statement.

The complaint was filed with the state prosecutor's office in the city of Marseille on May 5, according to Berna. The lawyer said his client is still in the air force and serving as a pilot but is no longer a combat pilot.

(Reporting by Lucien Libert, Tangi Salaun and Sybille de la Hamaide; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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