Fit To Serve: The Disabled Frenchman Who Became A Soldier And Olympic Athlete

Djamel Mastouri was told as a child that he'd never walk again. He went on to become an Olympic champion and an accomplished French soldier.

Djamel Mastouri during a 1,500-meter run
Djamel Mastouri during a 1,500-meter run
Emmanuel Versace

PARIS — Since the age of three, Djamel Mastouri has suffered paralysis on one side of his body, a disabilty so severe that he was told as a child he would never walk again. But it would take more than that to defeat the Parisian son of a modest family of Tunisian immigrants. He went on to serve in the French Army and win a bronze medal in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing.

At 41 — though he looks ten years younger — Chief Warrant Officer Mastouri recently competed in what will probably be his last world championship for disabled athletes. Of course, we've heard that before. After the Games in Beijing, he'd said they would be his last. But then he went on to compete in the London Games four years later where, because of an injury, he choked in the 800-meter semi-finals and finished a distant eighth in the 1,500-meter run. “For three months, I basically didn't talk to anybody,” he recalls. It was a unhappy time, an awful disillusion for someone whose sworn enemy is surrender.

When he was a kid, Mastouri had to face the cruel and gratuitous mockery from other children about his right-side paralysis that resulted from a blood clot in the brain. He made a decision early on to brave the merciless persecution and try to prove himself. “In sports, I was always the last one to be picked for the teams,” he recalls. “So I decided to become the best in everything: basketball, volleyball, handball… It was the desire to show others I was as good as them that gave me this strength.”

As a teenager, Mastouri followed in his brother's footsteps, quite literally, and decided to run track — “because my leg and my arm needed re-education, and it was not too expensive for my parents,” he explains. It turned out that he was better than his able-bodied competitors. As a junior, he became a 3,000-meter French champion. He was the runner-up in the 1,000-meter among the under-23s and was selected twice for the French national team, in the fit category.

“I’ve always overcome my handicap,” he says. “I was just like everybody else. As I was strong enough, I didn't think about playing parasports. With the fit ones, it was more aggressive. I thought it wouldn't be the same in parasports. In fact, at that time, I didn't know we could run in separate categories. I thought I would be running along blind people or amputees. I didn't feel I belonged there."

Then the army called

In 1992, his life changed dramatically when he was asked to fulfill his military obligations. Certain that his disability would disqualify him, he was flabbergasted when he was declared fit to serve. “I know how it feels to be looked at, and I did not want to experience that in the army,” he says. “I told them there must a mistake, but no. I appealed, and eventually in the Parisian military hospital, the Val-de-Grâce, among the 15 cases presented, everyone was discharged — except me!”

He does not know why the army accepted him, but it is rumoured that his athletic accomplishments influenced the decision. Once he joined the 8th Signal Regiment of Suresnes — south of Paris — he caricatured his disability in a last desperate effort to avoid being drafted. “I looked like Keyser Söze limping in the movie Usual Suspects!” he says. His dramatic effort was in vain.

He was told that he could simply work a desk job for about 10 months, but he refused. “It was against my principles,” he says. “Either I was discharged, or I did it giving my all. So I wanted to be the best. That’s what I tried to do, and at the end some still had no clue I was disabled.”

Two years later, he signed a contract with the army and served twice in Kosovo (in 2000 and 2001) for peace-keeping tasks. It was an unexpected and rich military career that still surprises him to this day. “Every time I run into a non-commissioned officer he tells me, "Mastouri, you know you should have never been here?" And I say, "Yes, I know, colonel, I don’t understand either."”

Breaking records, a new career

In December 2005, after he won the European championship, Mastouri was recognized as a high-level sportsman and was promoted to the regiment's sports office. He proceeded to win a series titles and break records in the serious hemiplegics category (legs and arms): six French champion titles and one European title in the 800 meters, and five national titles and an international one in the 1,500-meter run. He holds the French record for both distances, the indoor 800-meter world record and the world's second-fastest time in the 1,500-meter. The climax of his career came with a bronze medal at the Paralympic Games in Beijing.

In 2008, right after the Beijing Games, he was transferred to the athletic branch of the National Invalid Institution (CSINI) in Paris, where he is studying to become a sports instructor. The institution was created in 1996 to re-educate the thousands of soldiers who returned handicapped or traumatized from the Algerian war. In addition to disabled civilians, it also welcomes injured soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and, more recently, in Mali.

“It’s a real pleasure for me to see them doing sports, for leisure or even to compete,” Mastouri says. “And who knows? One day we might see them on the French team.” The goal is to rehabilitate the disabled and prepare them for the workforce rather than training high-level athletes. “Even though some French injured soldiers are involved in championships like the Wounded Warrior Project in the United States, they don’t yet have the required level to compete in the Paralympic Games or the Athletics World Championship for the disabled,” says Colonel Emmanuel Varlet, CSINI director.

Recently, Mastouri has been training at the Adolphe-Chéron Stadium in Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, near Paris, with his coach, Mohamed Boussif. After Mastouri's disappointing London performance, the coach witnessed his student and friend nearly throw his athletic career away. “In November, he was in his own bubble,” Boussif recalls. “It took me a while to get him out of it, and then he suffered a lung infection. Since then, he's regained confidence.”

Indeed, on July 14, Mastouri walked the Champs-Elysées as a guard for the flag-carrier of the French Inter-Army Sports School. “For me, that’s more important than the world championship," he says. “In the past, they got me out of the ranks because I couldn’t stretch my arm on the seam. So parading in this position is an honor for me as well as for all the disabled people, because it's the first time a handicapped person has done so.”

Clearly, this is a man who was right never to give up.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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