Advertisement
Share

Trial begins of 20 men accused in 2015 Paris terror attacks that killed 130

Security forces guard an entrance of a Paris courthouse.
Security forces guard an entrance of Paris’ Palais de Justice, where the trial of 20 men in the 2015 terror attacks on the French capital began Wednesday.
(Francois Mori / Associated Press)

The trial of 20 men accused in a series of coordinated attacks on Paris in 2015 that spread fear across Europe and transformed France opened Wednesday in a custom-built complex embedded within a 13th century courthouse.

Nine Islamic State gunmen and suicide bombers struck within minutes of one another at several locations around Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, leaving 130 people dead and hundreds wounded. It was the deadliest violence in France since World War II and among the worst terrorist attacks to hit the West.

The worst carnage was at the Bataclan concert hall, where three men with assault rifles gunned down scores of people and grabbed a handful of hostages. Others targeted the national soccer stadium, where the president was attending a game, as well as cafes filled with people on a mild autumn night.

The lone surviving suspect from that night, Salah Abdeslam, is the key defendant — but he has so far refused to speak to investigators, denying them answers to many of the remaining questions about the attacks and the people who planned them. Abdeslam, whose brother was among the suicide bombers, appeared wearing a black short-sleeved shirt and black trousers, his long hair tied back.

When asked to state his profession, he declared he was “a fighter for Islamic State” after intoning a prayer.

Abdeslam, who reportedly fled the night of the attacks after ditching his car and a malfunctioning suicide vest, is the only defendant charged with murder. The other defendants present face lesser terrorism charges.

Advertisement

The presiding judge, Jean-Louis Peries, acknowledged the extraordinary circumstances of the attacks, which changed security in Europe‘s political landscape, and the nine-month trial now underway. France emerged from the state of emergency declared in the attacks’ aftermath only in 2017, after incorporating many of the harshest measures into law.

The 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more. The trial of 20 men in connection with the attacks begins Wednesday.

“The events that we are about to decide are inscribed in their historic intensity as among the international and national events of this century,” Peries said.

Dominique Kielemoes, whose son bled to death at one of the cafes the night of the attacks, said hearing victims’ testimonies at the trial would be crucial for both their own healing and that of the nation.

The killers were quiet, calm. Jerome Lorenzi decided he had to be the same.

“The assassins, these terrorists, thought they were firing into the crowd, into a mass of people. But it wasn’t a mass — these were individuals who had a life, who loved, had hopes and expectations, and that we need to talk about at the trial,” she said. “It’s important.”

Of the 20 men charged, six will be tried in absentia. Abdeslam will be questioned multiple times — but it remains to be seen if he will break his silence beyond the sort of allegiance he offered Wednesday to Islamic State groups.

“We were expecting it, and we were prepared for it and in fact, we’re not expecting anything from him,” Kielemoes said after Abdeslam first appeared.

The Islamic State group that hit Paris went on to strike Brussels months later, killing 32 more people.

Authorities have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure security at the trial, building an entirely new courtroom within the storied 13th century Palais de Justice in Paris, where Marie Antoinette and Emile Zola faced trial, among others.

Survivors of the attacks as well as mourners of the deceased on Wednesday packed the complex’s rooms, which were designed to hold 1,800 plaintiffs and more than 300 lawyers.

For the first time, victims can also have a secure audio link to listen from home if they want with a 30-minute delay.

The trial is scheduled to last nine months. The month of September will be dedicated to laying out the police and forensic evidence. October will be given over to victims’ testimony. From November to December, officials, including then-French President Francois Hollande — who was at the Stade de France on the night of the assaults — will testify, as will relatives of the attackers.

The attacks transformed France: Authorities immediately declared a state of emergency and now armed officers constantly patrol public spaces. The assaults sparked soul-searching among the French, and Europeans more broadly, since most of the accused were born and raised in France or Belgium. And they altered forever the lives of all those who suffered losses or bore witness to the violence.

“Our ability to be carefree is gone,” Kielemoes said. “The desire to go out, travel — all of that’s gone. Even if we still do a number of things, our appetite for life has disappeared.”

In silence and mourning, France is marking five years since Islamic extremists killed 130 people at a concert hall, in cafes and at a sports stadium.

For Jean-Luc Wertenschlag, who lives above the cafe where his son died and who rushed downstairs soon after the first gunshots to try to save lives, it has even changed the way he moves around the city where he was born and raised. He never leaves home without the first aid gear he lacked that night, when he ripped off his shirt to stanch a victim’s bleeding.

“What we did that evening with other people, to provide assistance to the people wounded during the attack, was a way to stand against what these monsters had tried to do to us,” he said.

Among those scheduled to testify is Hollande, who gave the final order to police special forces to storm the Bataclan concert hall.

Hollande said Wednesday he would speak “not for the sake of French politics, but for the victims of the attacks.” He said he keenly felt the weight of responsibility that night and for days and weeks in the aftermath of the attack.

“When the cameras are turned off, you go back to the solitude of the Elysee [presidential palace],” Hollande told France-Info. “You ask, ‘What can I do? ... Is what just happened going to change society?’”

Wednesday’s hearing paused briefly after one of the defendants appeared to have a medical issue. When it resumed, Abdeslam burst out in fury.

“We should be treated like human beings. We’re not dogs,” he said, before being ordered to be silent.

None of the proceedings will be televised or rebroadcast to the public, but they will be recorded for archival purposes. Video recording has been allowed for only a handful of cases in France considered to be of historical value, including last year’s trial for the 2015 terrorist attacks against the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher supermarket.

Associated Press journalists Angela Charlton, Alex Turnbull and Catherine Gaschka contributed to this report.


Advertisement