PARIS (AP) – Over the course of an extraordinary nine-month trial, the lone survivor of the Islamic State extremist team that attacked Paris in 2015 has proclaimed his radicalism, wept, apologized to the victims and begged judges to forgive “mistakes”. †
For the families of the victims and survivors of the attacks, the trial of Salah Abdeslam and suspected accomplices was excruciating but crucial in their quest for justice and closure. The court will finally rule on Wednesday.
Abdeslam faces life in prison without parole for murder and other charges, the harshest possible sentence under the French legal system.
The historic Paris trial of 20 men suspected of being instrumental in the Islamic State massacres that killed 130 people on November 13, 2015 focused on the violence in the Bataclan theatre, Parisian cafes and the national stadium – the France’s deadliest peacetime attack.
For months, the overcrowded main room and 12 landing rooms in the 13th-century Palace of Justice heard the harrowing stories of the victims, along with testimonies from Abdeslam. The other suspects are largely accused of helping with logistics or transportation. At least one is accused of a direct role in the deadly attacks in March 2016 in Brussels, also claimed by Islamic State.
For survivors and grieving loved ones, the trial was an opportunity to share deeply personal stories of the horrors inflicted that night and to hear the details of countless acts of courage, humanity, and compassion among strangers. Some hoped for justice, but most just wanted to tell the accused directly that they were scarred beyond repair, but not broken.
“The killers, these terrorists, thought they were shooting at the crowd, at a crowd of people,” said Dominique Kielemoes at the start of the trial in September 2021. Her son bled to death in one of the cafes. Hearing the testimonies of victims was “critical to both their own healing and that of the nation,” Kielemoes said.
“It wasn’t a crowd — these were individuals who had a life, who loved, had hopes and expectations,” she said.
France was transformed in the wake of the attacks: authorities declared a state of emergency and armed officers now patrol public areas continuously. The violence sparked soul-searching among the French and Europeans, as most of the attackers were born and raised in France or Belgium. And they changed forever the lives of all those who have suffered losses or testified.
Presiding judge Jean-Louis Peries said at the beginning of the trial that it belongs to “international and national events of this century”. France came out of a state of emergency in 2017 after enacting many of the toughest measures into law.
Fourteen of the defendants have been taken to court, including Abdeslam, the sole survivor of the ten-man assault team that terrorized Paris that Friday night. All but one of the six absent men are believed to have been killed in Syria or Iraq; the other is in prison in Turkey.
Most of the suspects are accused of helping to create false identities, transport the attackers from Syria to Europe or provide them with money, telephones, explosives or weapons.
Abdeslam, a 32-year-old Belgian with Moroccan roots, was the only defendant to be tried as a member of a terrorist organization on several charges of murder and kidnapping.
The demanded sentence for Abdeslam of life imprisonment without parole has been handed down only four times in France – for crimes related to rape and murder of minors.
Prosecutors are seeking life sentences for nine other defendants. The other suspects were tried on lesser charges of terrorism and face sentences ranging from five to 30 years.
Finally, prosecutors stressed that all 20 defendants, who had dispersed throughout the French capital, armed with semi-automatic rifles and vests full of explosives to carry out parallel attacks, are members of the Islamic State extremist group responsible for the massacres.
“Not everyone is a jihadist, but all those you judge have accepted to join a terrorist group, whether through conviction, cowardice or greed,” prosecutor Nicolas Braconnay told the court this month.
Some defendants, including Abdeslam, said innocent civilians were targeted because of French policies in the Middle East and hundreds of civilian deaths in Western airstrikes in Syria and Iraq against Islamic State fighters.
During his testimony, former President François Hollande rejected claims that his government was guilty.
The Islamic State, “this pseudo-state, declared war with weapons of war,” Hollande said. The attackers in Paris did not terrorize, shoot, murder, maim or traumatize civilians because of religion, he said, adding that it was “fanaticism and barbarism”.
The night of the attack was a balmy Friday night, with bars and restaurants packed across the city. At the Bataclan concert hall, the American band Eagles of Death Metal played to a full house. A football match between France and Germany had just started at the national stadium, attended by then-President Hollande and then-Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The sound of the first suicide bombing at 9:16 p.m. could barely exceed the noise of the stadium crowd. The second came four minutes later. A group of gunmen opened fire on several bars and restaurants in another part of Paris. That bloodshed outside came to an end at 9:41 pm
Worse was to follow. At 9:47 PM, three more gunmen burst into the Bataclan and fired randomly. Ninety people died within minutes. Hundreds were held hostage – some seriously injured – in the concert hall for hours before Hollande, watching people covered in blood exit the Bataclan, ordered a storm.
Abdeslam was silent for years and refused to talk to investigators. In April, his words began to flow, in testimonies that sometimes contradicted previous statements, including about his loyalty to the Islamic State.
He told the court that he was a last-minute addition to the group. He said he “renounced” his mission to detonate his explosive-filled vest that night in a bar in northern Paris. He first hid near Paris and then fled with friends to Brussels, where he was arrested four months later.
Prosecutors highlighted contradictions in Abdeslam’s testimony — from pledging allegiance to Islamic State at the start of the trial and expressing regret that his explosives strapped to his body did not detonate, to alleging he changed his mind in the bar and deliberately removed his vest. because he didn’t want to kill people who ‘sing and dance’.
During closing arguments Monday, Abdelslam’s lawyer Olivia Ronen told a panel of judges that her client is the only one in the group of attackers who did not set off explosives that night to kill others. He cannot be convicted of murder, she argued.
“If a life sentence is handed down with no hope of ever experiencing freedom again, I fear we have lost a sense of proportion,” Ronan said. She emphasized during the trial that she “does not legitimize the attacks” by defending her client in court.
Abdeslam apologized to the victims at his latest court hearing Monday, saying his regret and grief are sincere and sincere. Listening to victims’ stories of “so much suffering” has changed him, he said.
“I’ve made mistakes, it’s true, but I’m not a murderer, I’m not a murderer,” he said.
Surk contributed from Nice, France.
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