Marathon trial begins in France over 2015 Paris attacks

The biggest trial in France’s modern history opened on Wednesday of 20 suspects charged over the November 2015 Paris attacks that saw 130 people killed, with the expected nine months of hearings set to reopen still raw wounds.

The suicide bombing and gun assault by three teams of jihadists on bars, restaurants and the Bataclan music venue — planned in Syria and later claimed by the Islamic State group — was the worst post-war atrocity on French territory.

The only surviving attacker, Salah Abdeslam, was present as proceedings opened under tight security at a purpose-built facility at the historic court of justice on the Ile de la Cite in central Paris.

Repeating the the basic statement of Islamic faith known as the Shahadah, Abdeslam told the court “there is no god but Allah” as he was asked to identify himself.

A total of 14 defendants are being tried in person and six others in absentia. Twelve of the 20 people on trial, including Abdeslam, face life sentences if convicted.

“We are entering the unknown,” said Arthur Denouveaux, a survivor of the Bataclan music venue attack and president of Life for Paris, a victims’ association. 

“We’re eager for it to start but we’re wondering how it’s going to go over the next nine months,” he said.

The trial will last until May 2022 with 145 days of scheduled hearings involving about 330 lawyers, 300 victims and testimony in November from Francois Hollande, who was French president at the time of the attacks. 

“These events are seared into our collective memory,” Justice Minister Eric Dupont-Moretti told French TV, vowing that the trial would rise to the challenge.

– Silent suspect –

Surviving gunman Abdeslam, now 31, was born in Belgium but has French and Moroccan nationality. He fled the scene of the carnage after abandoning his suicide belt, which investigators later found to be defective. 

He was captured four months later in Brussels, hiding in a building close to his family home.

Abdeslam, whose long black beard in court extended below his Covid mask, has refused to cooperate with the French investigation and remained largely silent throughout a separate trial in Belgium in 2018.

Asked by the court for his profession, he replied: “I gave up all professions to become a fighter for the Islamic State”. He refused to give the names of his parents. “The names of my father and mother have nothing to do with this.”

A major question is whether he will speak at his scheduled testimony, set for mid-January.

“He must speak to victims. If he does not say anything, his cowardice will be even greater than what we assume it to be today,” Hollande told France info radio.

– ‘Give voice’ –

The trial will scrutinise how a squad of killers managed to enter France undetected, allegedly using the flow of migrants from Islamic State-controlled regions of Syria as cover.

The other 13 accused present in court — who face charges ranging from providing logistical support to planning the attacks as well as weapons offences — also gave their names, addresses and professions.

They include Osama Krayem, a Swede whom Belgian investigators identified as one of the killers of a Jordanian pilot burnt alive in a cage by IS in early 2015 in Syria. He is also under investigation in Sweden for war crimes.

The alleged coordinator, Belgian citizen Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was killed by French police northeast of Paris five days after the attacks. 

Of the six tried in absentia, five are presumed dead, mainly in air strikes in Syria.

The horror was unleashed late on Friday, November 13, when jihadists detonated suicide belts outside the Stade de France stadium where Hollande was watching France play a football match against Germany. 

A group of Islamist gunmen, including Abdeslam’s brother Brahim, later opened fire from a car on half a dozen restaurants. 

The massacre culminated at the Bataclan music venue. Three jihadists stormed in during a performance, killing 90 people.

Philippe Duperron, whose 30-year-old son was fatally wounded in the Bataclan and is president of the victims’ association 13onze15, said he hoped the trial would “give a voice to all those who are no longer there”.

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