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Court hands down prison sentences for Corsica brawl

Several hundreds of people gather outside the courthouse of Bastia on September 15, 2016 to support two residents of Sisco before the start of their trial for alleged involvement in a violent brawl on August 13. PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP

A Corsica court on Friday handed out prison sentences to five men over a mass beach brawl on the Mediterranean island, in a racially charged case that captured wide attention in France over the summer.

The violence in Sisco, in the island's north, left five people injured, prompting the mayor of the village to ban the Islamic burkini swimsuit initially thought to have been at the centre of the row.

Safety Fears

Mustapha Benhaddou was sentenced to two years in prison for armed violence, while his brothers Abdelillah and Jamal both received suspended sentences of six months.

Sisco residents Lucien Straboni and Pierre Baldi were handed suspended sentences of one year and eight months respectively. Of the brothers only Mustapha was present in court, the others telling their lawyers they feared for their safety following several anti-Islam demonstrations and attacks on the island.

Around 100 police were deployed to quell the August 13 clashes between locals and families of North African origin from another part of the island.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the court in Bastia on Thursday to support two local men facing charges over the incident alongside three brothers of Moroccan origin.

Only one of the three brothers was present in court, the other two telling their lawyers they feared for their safety following several anti-Islam demonstrations and attacks on the island.

According to the Bastia prosecutor and to eyewitness accounts published in the French daily Le Parisien on Tuesday, the August 13 brawl began after the Benhaddou brothers and their families blocked the entrance to a beach in Sisco with a panel in order to appropriate it for their private use.

When an 18-year-old Sisco resident came to the beach, Mustafa tried to attack him with a knife, the paper reported.

Soon after, a crowd of Sisco villagers arrived at the beach to confront the Benhaddou family. Blows were exchanged, rocks were thrown, and cars were set on fire.

Police and gendarmes had to intervene to stop the violence and evacuate members of the Benhaddou family who had been wounded. According to Le Parisien, Baldi kicked Jamal Benhaddou while he was on the ground, and Straboni punched Benhaddou while he was being evacuated.

Burkini Ban

The clashes came amid heightened tension in France after a string of attacks claimed by the Islamic State group, including the July 14 massacre in the southern city of Nice when a Tunisian ploughed a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day, killing 86 people.

In Corsica last December, angry protesters vandalised a Muslim prayer hall and trashed copies of the Koran after an assault on firefighters that was blamed on local youths of Arab origin.

Sisco is one of around 30 French towns that have moved to ban the burkini, though the country's top administrative court has suspended the move in most cases.

But the Council of State allowed Sisco to keep its burkini ban, saying it was justified on public order grounds -- even though prosecutors ruled out any connection between the beach brawl and the full-body swimsuit.

Sisco's mayor Ange-Pierre Vivoni described the court's ruling as "a relief for me and local people".

He has told reporters that he brought in the ban because he "risked having deaths on my hands".