Yvan Colonna, Corsican Jailed for French Prefect’s Murder, Dies at 61
PARIS — Yvan Colonna, a Corsican activist who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison 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 on 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 suffocated by another inmate in a prison on the French mainland, where he was serving a life sentence for the 1998 murder of Claude Érignac, a government-appointed prefect in Corsica.
The prison attack had left Mr. Colonna in a coma, infuriating many in Corsica and sparking violent protests. Corsica is closer to Italy than France in language, culture and geography, and it is home to a nationalist movement that has mostly renounced violence but remains deeply rooted on the island.
“His death is an injustice and a tragedy that will mark Corsica’s contemporary history and its people,” Gilles Simeoni, Mr. Colonna’s former lawyer and the head of the executive council that oversees Corsica, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Mr. Colonna, who had always claimed his innocence in Mr. Érignac’s murder, was first sought by the French police in 1999, after investigators arrested a group of men suspected of involvement in the killing. Several of them identified Mr. Colonna as the gunman, although they would later retract their statements, accusing the police of having pressured them.
He evaded capture 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 the police finally found Mr. Colonna — called “the shepherd of Cargèse,” the name of his family’s hometown, in the French press.
Those years spent hiding among the island’s mountains and scrubland turned Mr. Colonna into a storied figure in Corsica — a living embodiment of the island’s rugged, rural roots and of its stubborn defiance of the French state.
“He became a kind of myth for the nationalist movement,” said Thierry Dominici, a Corsica expert at the University of Bordeaux. That standing grew with his arrest and his claims of innocence.
Mr. Colonna was found guilty of Mr. Érignac’s murder and sentenced to life in 2007 by a court in Paris. The conviction was upheld on appeal in 2009. That second conviction was later overturned on procedural grounds, but he was once again sentenced to life at a final trial in 2011.
A majority of Corsicans were shocked when Mr. Érignac, who acted as the French state representative on the island, was shot in the back of the head while walking to a theater in Ajaccio, Corsica’s largest city. Thousands marched in protest after the murder, which is still considered the gravest act of anti-state violence in a decades-long conflict on the island that has seen hundreds of bombings, shootings and arrests, mostly 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, by keeping them jailed on the mainland and refusing to transfer them to the island, where they would be closer to their families.
The assault on Mr. Colonna, who was purportedly under close surveillance in a prison near the southern French city of Arles, compounded that criticism, even though the government then quickly took steps to transfer him and other prisoners to the island.
On March 2, he was viciously attacked by another inmate, a known Islamist extremist who had been convicted on terrorism charges and had a history of violent acts in prison. The inmate, identified by French authorities as Franck Elong Abé, 35, beat, strangled and suffocated Mr. Colonna in the prison gym.
Mr. Elong Abé later told investigators that he had heard Mr. Colonna make “blasphemous” comments. Prosecutors have opened an investigation. But it is still unclear how the attack was able to last nearly 10 minutes without any intervention from prison guards.
Initial reactions in Corsica to Mr. Colonna’s death were calm, with small funeral processions and gatherings around the island.
But after scrambling to quell the protests this month by floating the possibility of Corsican “autonomy” — a tricky topic in highly centralized France — the government is bracing for additional demonstrations and hoping to contain a new outburst of nationalist violence just weeks before France’s presidential election. One of the main nationalist groups, the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica, laid down arms in 2014 but issued new threats last week after Mr. Colonna was assaulted.
On Tuesday, President Emmanuel Macron appealed for “calm and responsibility.”
“There will be consequences, because we cannot let such acts be committed in our prisons,” he told France Bleu radio. The government has ordered an internal investigation to identify any failings on the part of the prison administration.
Mr. Dominici said that Mr. Colonna remained a potent symbol for Corsica’s politicized youth, who grew up after the conflict had calmed down but are still angered by issues like unaffordable housing on the island — a popular destination for French people from the mainland — and who feel that the nationalists now in office have done little to answer calls for more independence.
“A spark was all that was required to send them into the streets, and that spark was the attack on Yvan Colonna,” Mr. Dominici said.
Yvan Colonna was born on April 7, 1960, in Ajaccio to Jean-Hugues Colonna, a physical education teacher who later became a Socialist lawmaker, 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 Mr. Colonna of acting as a lookout in the attack and charged him with taking part in a terrorist conspiracy.
He was convicted in absentia in 2001 for his role in that case. The bullets used in Mr. Érignac’s killing were traced back to guns that had been stolen from officers in 1997 during the attack on the police station.
Mr. Colonna is survived by his wife, Stéphanie, and their son, as well as a son from a previous relationship.