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Landmark Paris attacks trial leaves riddles unsolved, tears unnumbered

The marathon trial of suspects in the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris, which comes to a climax this Wednesday, was a moment of purgation for survivors and relatives of the dead, but shed little light on the lingering gray areas of the worst peacetime massacre in the world. modern French history.

French judges will hand down a historic verdict on Wednesday in the trial of 20 men suspected of being instrumental in the worst terror attacks ever in France, the massacre of 130 people in Paris bars, the Bataclan concert hall and the national stadium at night. dated November 13, 2015.

Prosecutors have demanded a life sentence without parole for the main suspect, Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving member of the commando who carried out massacre on the streets of the French capital. The other 19 on trial are co-defendants of the Brussels-based cell that carried out the attacks on behalf of the Islamic State (IS). Fourteen of the defendants have been summoned to appear in court. All but one of the six absent men are dead in Syria or Iraq.

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Regardless, the trial of the Paris attacks is unprecedented in scope and complexity, reflecting the enormity of an atrocity that has sent shockwaves across the country and beyond.

The investigation lasted six years and the written conclusions extend as far as 53 meters (174 feet) when drafted. Hearings lasted more than nine months, housed in a purpose-built courtroom in the 13th century Palace of Justice in the center of Paris, a relaxing wooden construction with chairs and benches for almost 600 people.

“We’ll have to be patient,” warned Presiding Judge Jean-Louis Périès from the start, whose deft balance of authority and bonhomie ensured the titanic trial went off without incident.

shattered lives

Among the hundreds of relatives of plaintiffs who gathered at the court every day, those who wanted to speak expressed varying hopes for the trial. Some came to seek some form of psychological healing, while others felt a deep desire to serve justice. Many longed for answers to the questions that have haunted them since the attacks.

>> Read more: Foreign victims of Bataclan attack seek solace in witness statement at trial in Paris

Covid-19 made face masks mandatory during the early months of the trial, but it soon became clear that tissues would be the trial’s most indispensable item during the heartbreaking statements that marked the start of the trial.

For five long weeks, survivors and relatives of the dead gave harrowing testimony, some unbearably poignant. About 450 plaintiffs — about a quarter of those registered for the trial — showed up to tell of their tribulations, sometimes gasping for air, their voices trembling, their faces drenched with tears.

Never before had a courtroom given so much time and space to the pain of those who lost a child, a spouse, a sibling, a friend. Some would later describe how the hearings helped them piece together the fragments of their ruined lives.

“When the process started, it felt like a leap into the unknown. Now we can only be relieved about how it has developed’, says Arthur Dénouveaux of the victims’ association Life for Paris. The trial of the Paris attacks will be “a milestone for justice,” added Philippe Duperron of the association 13our15, whose son was killed in the Bataclan concert hall.

Some even thanked the defendants’ lawyers for their passionate but respectful pleas. “It’s important,” said Bruno Poncet, who was at the Bataclan that evening, speaking of Abdeslam’s eloquent defense. “It proves that the only answer to barbarity is justice and democracy.”

A deafening silence

Inevitably, Covid took its toll on the proceedings, resulting in multiple absences and delays. The defendants, grouped in a single box, were especially affected: six of them contracted the virus in quick succession. So did one of the three lead prosecutors, who was forced to follow important interrogations from home. Covid-induced interruptions are responsible for the one-month delay in the verdict, which was initially set to come on May 25.

Stupidity proved even more contagious among the accused, much to the dismay of prosecutors and plaintiffs eager for answers.

When the trial finally got to the heart of the matter, three of the accused – Osama Krayem, Sofien Ayari and Mohamed Bakkali – abruptly stopped answering questions. Their stubborn silence put an end to any hopes of shedding light on the “important logistical role” attributed to Bakkali in planning the Paris attacks and the alleged plot to attack Schiphol the same day, of which Krayem and Ayari are accused. accused.

“I fought hard and was severely convicted for something I didn’t do. I don’t have the strength anymore,” Bakkali, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in the summer of 2015 for the failed attack on a Thalys train to Paris, told the court. “For people like me, it’s dangerous to be hopeful,” Ayari added, explaining his decision to silence.

Clios or Kalashnikovs?

Just hours before the Paris attacks, Krayem and Ayari made a brief and inexplicable visit to Amsterdam, according to researchers, who also wrote a “Nov. 13” file with a subfolder “Schiphol Groep” in a discarded laptop in a Brussels garbage can. That was already known before the trial, which yielded few other clues. Nor was it clear why the car Abdeslam used to drop off the bombers from the Stade de France on Nov. 13 was seen at Paris’ Charles-de-Gaulle airport just hours earlier.

All the suspects kept their mouths shut when questioned about the possibility that both airports were on the target list.

More than nine months of hearings also failed to determine the origin of the six Kalashnikov rifles found at the scenes of the Paris attacks. The court had to collect the fragmentary and sometimes inconclusive reports of anonymous Belgian researchers who testify via video link.

One clue suggested that Bakkali got hold of the weapons in Belgium a week before the attacks. Another pointed to co-defendant Ali El Haddad Asufi, who is known to have searched in October 2015 in the vicinity of Rotterdam in the neighboring Netherlands for “Clios” – a code name for Kalashnikovs, not for Renault cars according to investigators. his innocence, and said he had nothing to do with the plot.

Abdeslam’s change of heart

Why Abdeslam, the only 10-strong commando who sowed terror in the streets of Paris, used neither a Kalashnikov rifle nor his explosive vest on the night of the attacks, remained the biggest unsolved mystery when the trial was concluded.

The commando’s lone survivor also kept tight-lipped during much of the hearings, barring an occasional outburst of extremist bravado. In April, however, his words began to flow and he gave a lengthy testimony over several days that sometimes contradicted previous statements, including about his loyalty to the IS group.

“I’m going to explain myself because it’s the last time I’ll get a chance to do that,” said the 32-year-old, who had refused to cooperate during his six years behind bars. “All these people here need my answers. I can’t promise anything, but I’ll do my best.”

As the only member of the Paris attackers not to join the IS group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, Abdeslam told the court he was a last-minute addition to the group. He said he “renounced” his mission to detonate his explosives-filled vest in a bar in northern Paris on the night of Nov. 13, as his brother and other extremists proliferated around the capital and launched parallel attacks.

“I go into the cafe, I order a drink, I look at the people around me and I tell myself ‘no, I’m not going to do it,'” Abdeslam told the court. “I changed my mind out of humanity, not fear,” he insisted, claiming he had disabled the suicide belt that investigators said was in fact defective.

In their closing arguments, the prosecutors condemned Abdeslam’s expression of emotion in court as a cynical ploy to encourage leniency. “Who can offer an insincere apology for so much suffering?” Abdeslam responded in his closing statement, acknowledging mistakes but stating, “I’m not a murderer, I’m not a murderer.”

The man who started the trial and expressed his support for the IS group ended it with a tearful plea for leniency, expressing his “condolences and apologies” in court. Was he struck by the months of heartbreaking testimonies or was he just trying to save his skin? As with the other twists and turns of the process, Abdeslam’s apparent change of heart raised as many questions as it answered.

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