Trial over January 2015 attacks opens in Paris
By Aurelien Breeden and Constant Méheut
France began revisiting one of the worst chapters in its modern history Wednesday, as a landmark trial opened in Paris for the January 2015 terrorist attacks that killed 17 people in and around the French capital.
Over at least the next two months, before the glare of the world’s media and under tight security, the court is expected to meticulously examine three harrowing days that traumatized France 5 1/2 years ago, starting with a daytime assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine that Islamic extremists targeted after it published cartoons lampooning Islam.
The killings were followed by a string of deadly jihadi attacks, culminating with assaults in November that year in and around Paris that killed 130 people, vaulting France into a yearslong state of emergency.
Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, the two brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attack, died in a shootout with the police north of Paris two days later. A third attacker, Amédy Coulibaly, killed a police officer in a Parisian suburb and four Jewish hostages at a kosher supermarket before dying himself when the police stormed the building.
With all the central assailants dead, the current trial will be more cathartic than revelatory for a country forced by the events to reckon with the threat of homegrown terrorism, permanently altering its balance between security and civil liberty.
Those on trial, who range in age from 29 to 68, are charged with providing logistical aid to the assailants, by carrying or supplying cash, weapons and vehicles. Most of the accused are facing up to 20 years in prison.
The court is expected to hear testimony from some 150 witnesses, and, exceptionally, the proceedings will be filmed for posterity.
“For them, for us, for history,” the daily Libération wrote on a black front page Wednesday.
“From a collective point of view, you need a trial to say that this sequence of events is closed and is now in the past,” said Gérôme Truc, a sociologist who has worked extensively on the way countries like France have reacted to and commemorated terrorist attacks. “Society can move on.”
But as the trial closes one chapter, it will open another: In the years to come, several major terrorism cases are expected to come to trial, especially over the November 2015 attacks in Paris and one in Nice in July 2016, with a record number of defendants and plaintiffs — and often without the perpetrators.
“In a sense, it will be a sort of a big rehearsal,” Antoine Mégie, an expert on counterterrorism legislation, said of trial that began Wednesday.
Thirteen men and one woman stand accused in the trial, which was postponed from the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. Under French law, terrorism cases are tried by professional magistrates, not juries, and some 200 plaintiffs have joined the case.
“We want to fill this courtroom with what our clients went through,” Patrick Klugman, a lawyer for surviving hostages at the kosher supermarket, told reporters at the courthouse Wednesday, adding that he also wanted to renew the focus on the anti-Semitic nature of the killings.
Reporters mobbed lawyers with television cameras and microphones at the courthouse in Paris on Wednesday, quickly filling up several rooms that have been set aside to rebroadcast the proceedings, although the first day of the trial is expected to be purely procedural. Security at the courthouse was tight, with police blocking off neighboring streets, checking IDs and making rounds with bomb-sniffing dogs.
Everyone — including the suspects who were brought handcuffed into the main courtroom by police officers wearing black balaclavas — had a mask strapped across their face.
Among the accused in the new trial is Hayat Boumeddiene, Coulibaly’s religious partner at the time, and two brothers who helped her leave France for Syria shortly before the attacks. The brothers, Mehdi Belhoucine and Mohamed Belhoucine, are thought to have died in Syria and Iraq, but French authorities believe that Boumeddiene could be alive and in hiding. All three will be tried in absentia.
Mohamed Belhoucine and another man, Ali Riza Polat, are accused of more direct involvement in inspiring and preparing the attacks. They face more serious charges of complicity in the crimes, which carry a life sentence.
But none of the main perpetrators will face the court.
François Molins, the Paris prosecutor at the time of the attacks, said that the absence of main suspects might frustrate victims seeking answers. He said the trial would nonetheless shine a light on remaining gray areas, including how the attacks were prepared and whether more were planned.
The Kouachi brothers said they were carrying out the attack in the name of al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, while Coulibaly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, but it remains unclear who might have directly ordered them.
“The challenge, whether the main perpetrators are there or not, is to make it possible to understand what happened, how it happened and why it happened,” said Molins, who is now the chief prosecutor at the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest judicial court.
In the days that followed the attacks, millions of people poured into streets around the country to demonstrate against Islamic extremism and show support for freedom of expression, rallying around the slogan #JeSuisCharlie — I am Charlie. “Still Charlie,” Jean Castex, the French prime minister, tweeted Wednesday.
But the attacks also set off debates — many of them unresolved — over secularism, freedom of expression and the integration of France’s Muslim minority.
Charlie Hebdo, true to character, defiantly reprinted cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on its front page for the first day of the trial, explaining in an editorial that the drawings had “historical value” and were “pieces of evidence” that needed to be remembered.
“We will never back down,” Laurent Sourisseau, Charlie Hebdo’s editorial director, wrote in a separate piece, arguing that the “hatred” from the 2015 attacks was still present. “We will never give up.”