Five years ago on Tuesday, Saad and Iqbal al-Hilli were found shot to death on a remote road near Annecy along with Iqbal’s mother, Suhaila al-Allaf. The body of Sylvain Mollier, a French cyclist, was found lying metres away.
Saad al-Hilli, 50, his wife Iqbal, 47, and her 74-year-old mother all died at the scene of the September 5, 2012 attack. The al-Hilli daughters — Zainab, 7, and Zeena, 4 — survived the attack, although Zainab was shot in the shoulder and severely beaten, suffering skull fractures. Zeena hid for hours under her dead mother’s skirt in the family car but escaped injury.
Investigators have said they thought Mollier, who had no apparent link to the British-Iraqi family, arrived on the scene as the attack was under way and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Zaid al-Hilli, the victim’s brother, told the BBC this week that he was frustrated at the French authorities’ failure to find out what happened to his brother and his family.
“There hasn’t been any progress in the case,” he said. “The initial investigation (by French investigators) has been a total failure.”
He added: “They made claims against the family which they couldn’t prove.”
Zaid himself was briefly detained by Surrey police in 2013 as part of the French investigation but subsequently released for lack of evidence. He later accused French police of taking part in a cover-up.
The lead prosecutor in the French probe, Veronique Dizot, told the BBC that investigators were still trying to identify the former owners of the guns used in the attack, in which more than 20 bullets were fired. In an interview with The Times this week, she said that the killings might have been random, and that the family may have simply been the victims of an “unfortunate encounter“.
“After five years, we are a bit discouraged and worried,” she told the paper. “Time is working against us.”
Family feud? Industrial espionage?
The brutal murder of a family out for a drive in the Alps near the village of Chevaline gripped France for months. The initial investigation focused on the theory that the al-Hilli family may have been targeted because of a family feud over an inheritance, a line of inquiry based on recorded phone conversations. Legal documents showed that the two brothers jointly owned the al-Hilli family home in Surrey that they inherited from their father.
Eric Maillaud, the Annency prosecutor who led the joint French and British police investigation into the murders, has said that the two brothers were involved in a bitter dispute over property in the UK, Iraq and possibly elsewhere, part of a multi-million inheritance left by their father when he died in 2011.
The British Telegraph reported that a legal document from 2012 appeared to show that Saad had attempted to delay or even block his father’s will from being executed.
Swiss prosecutors confirmed in 2012 that al-Hilli visited a bank in Geneva shortly before he was killed. The Tribune de Genève newspaper reported that prosecutors believed the trip may have been “linked to the murders”. Swiss broadcaster RTS reported that the bank account, which had belonged to al-Hilli’s father, was subsequently seized by Swiss authorities.
Maillaud has also suggested that Saad al-Hilli’s career as an engineer working with an international British firm specialising in satellites could have provided a motive for the murders.
“If you are talking about foreign states and industrial espionage, you could also be talking about secret service involvement,” Maillaud said in 2013.
Despite a search of al-Hilli’s Surrey home by UK and French police, no evidence has been found to indicate a possible motive for the killings.
Zaid al-Hilli has denied the reports of a feud with his brother. A cousin of the al-Hilli brothers told the Telegraph that he was also unaware of any dispute between Saad, a mechanical engineer, and Zaid, who works for the Burhill Group golf and leisure company in Surrey.
Ahmed al-Saffar, Iqbal’s uncle, said investigators had unnecessarily focused their investigation on the possible involvement of family members and dismissed other valid lines of inquiry.
“I think the French prosecutor also focused on the family without presenting any evidence. It’s kind of wild speculation,” he told BBC radio in 2012.
He added that theories about a family feud had increased the family’s suffering.
“What is unfortunate is what comes out in the media from the French prosecutor, focusing on the family and dismissing all other lines of investigation. This has made, actually, a great damage to the family,” he said.
“Just focusing on the family, it is not fair and it is not the right thing.”
Hope running out
Kevin Hurley, the police commissioner in Surrey, described the case in 2013 as the “most mysterious he had come across in 20 years”, the British Independent reported.
More than 100 police officers in both France and Britain have been involved in the joint investigation, and hundreds of witnesses have been questioned.
Zaid said the last time he was in contact with French authorities was “very briefly” back in 2015. He told the BBC that he was now putting his faith in British authorities to solve the case.
“The only way forward is for a British judge to look into the investigation and give us some conclusions,” he said.
“I don’t think the French authorities were honest and we don’t trust them and we don’t have faith in them.
“Five years on, I don’t think we’ll ever find out what happened.”
The al-Hilli daughters have been given new identities since the murders and have recovered admirably, their uncle said.
“The girls are fine and doing well, and I’m in touch with them,” Zaid told the BBC.
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