PARIS – Yvan Colonna, a Corsican activist sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of a top French official and who became a symbol of Corsica’s nationalist movement and of the Mediterranean island’s ambivalent relations with mainland France, died Monday in a hospital in Marseille. He was 61.
His lawyers confirmed his death in a statement†
Mr Colonna died three weeks after being strangled and asphyxiated by another inmate in a prison on mainland France, where he was serving a life sentence for the 1998 murder of Claude Érignac, a government-appointed prefect in Corsica.
The attack on the prison had left Mr Colonna in a coma, angering many in Corsica and sparking violent protests. Closer to Italy than France in language, culture and geography, Corsica is home to a nationalist movement that has largely renounced violence, but remains deeply rooted in the island.
“His death is an injustice and a tragedy that will mark the contemporary history and the people of Corsica,” Gilles Simeoni, Mr Colonna’s former lawyer and head of the executive council that oversees Corsica, said in a statement. statement on Tuesday.
Colonna, who had always claimed his innocence in the murder of Mr Érignac, was first wanted by French police in 1999, after investigators arrested a group of men suspected of involvement in the murder. Several of them identified Mr. Colonna as the shooter, though they would later retract their statements, accusing the police of pressuring them.
He evaded arrest and went on the run. An intense manhunt that stretched as far as Venezuela ended four years later at a cramped farmhouse in southern Corsica, where police finally found Mr Colonna – dubbed “the Shepherd of Cargèse” in the French press, the name of the birthplace of his family.
Those years of hiding between the mountains and the island’s undergrowth made Mr. Colonna a legendary figure in Corsica – a living embodiment of the island’s rugged, rural roots and his tenacious resistance to the French state.
“He became something of a myth for the nationalist movement,” said Thierry Dominici, a Corsica expert at the University of Bordeaux. That status grew with his arrest and his allegations of innocence.
Mr Colonna was found guilty of the murder of Mr Érignac and sentenced to life in prison by a Paris court in 2007. The conviction was upheld on appeal in 2009. That second conviction was later quashed on procedural grounds, but in 2011, he was again sentenced to life in prison in a final trial.
A majority of Corsicans were shocked when Mr Érignac, who was acting as the representative of the French state on the island, was shot in the back of the head as he walked towards a theater in Ajaccio, Corsica’s largest city. Thousands demonstrated in protest after the killing, which is still considered the most serious act of anti-state violence in a decades-long conflict on the island that has seen hundreds of bombings, shootings and arrests, mainly after the 1970s.
But many in Corsica also felt that the state was unfairly treating Mr Colonna and the other prisoners convicted in the case, detaining them on the mainland and refusing to transfer them to the island, where they could be closer to their families. would be.
The attack on Mr Colonna, who was supposedly under close surveillance in a prison near the southern French city of Arles, compounded those criticisms, although the government then quickly took steps to transfer him and other inmates to the island.
On March 2, he was brutally attacked by another inmate, a known Islamist extremist who had been convicted of terrorism and had a history of violent acts in prison. The prisoner, identified by French authorities as Franck Elong Abé, 35, beat, strangled and choked Mr. Colonna in the prison gym.
Mr Elong Abé later told investigators that he had heard Mr Colonna make “blasphemous” remarks. Prosecutors have opened an investigation. But it is still unclear how the attack could have lasted nearly 10 minutes without the intervention of prison guards.
Initial reactions in Corsica to Mr Colonna’s death were calm, with small funeral processions and gatherings around the island.
But after attempting this month to quell protests by raising the possibility of Corsican “autonomy” — a tricky issue in highly centralized France — the government is bracing for additional demonstrations and hopes to launch a new one. outbreak of nationalist violence just weeks before the French presidential election . One of the main nationalist groups, the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica, laid down arms in 2014 but threatened new threats last week after Colonna was attacked.
On Tuesday, President Emmanuel Macron called for “calm and accountability”.
“There will be consequences because we cannot allow such acts to be committed in our prisons,” he told France Bleu radio. The government has ordered an internal investigation to identify any shortcomings in the prison administration.
Mr Dominici said Mr Colonna remained a powerful symbol for Corsica’s politicized youth, who grew up after the conflict had calmed down but are still angry about issues such as unaffordable housing on the island – a popular destination for French from the mainland – and who feel that the nationalists now in office have done little to answer calls for greater independence.
“A spark was all it took to send them out into the street, and that spark was the attack on Yvan Colonna,” said Mr. Dominici.
Yvan Colonna was born in Ajaccio on April 7, 1960, the son of Jean-Hugues Colonna, a physical education teacher who later became a socialist legislator, and Cécile Riou, who was also a physical education teacher.
His family moved to Nice, on the French Riviera, when he was a teenager, but he moved back to Corsica in 1981 after completing high school and military service. He settled in Cargèse, where he raised sheep and became an active member of some of Corsica’s more hardened militant circles.
In 1997, after a police station in southern Corsica was bombed and several officers were briefly taken hostage, prosecutors accused Colonna of acting as a lookout for the attack and accused him of participating in a terrorist conspiracy.
He was convicted in absentia in 2001 for his role in that case. The bullets used in Mr Érignac’s murder were traced to weapons stolen from officers during the attack on the police station in 1997.
Mr. Colonna leaves behind his wife, Stéphanie, and their son, as well as a son from a previous relationship.