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The difficult search for the truth in France’s biggest terror trial

#difficult #search #truth #Frances #biggest #terror #trial

During the nine-month trial following France’s worst terrorist attacks in November 2015, the moment hundreds of victims had been hoping for came too late.

“I will explain myself because it is the last time I have the opportunity to do so,” said Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving Islamic State jihadist from the group that had attacked the Bataclan concert hall and other targets in the French capital.

The words, spoken in the defendants’ glass box in April, shook the courtroom, where the victims and their families were omnipresent during the hearings.

Those involved in the November 13, 2015 slaughter had expressed mixed hopes for the trial, the biggest in French history, which will culminate this Wednesday when verdicts are expected.

Many survivors thought that attending would help them heal psychologically. Others felt a deep need for justice, even though most of the attackers were dead.

And many others were hoping for clarification: Why had 10 young men of Muslim background, most of them born in Europe, slaughtered 130 people while enjoying themselves on a Friday evening?

“We come here because we’re trying to understand things that are completely irrational,” a victim’s widow, who asked not to be named, told AFP when she went to court in October.

She also hoped to meet people “who saw my husband just before he died,” she added, and her voice caught in her throat.

The attacks on the national sports stadium, bars in busy neighborhoods and the Bataclan were the worst peacetime atrocities in modern French history.

The trial opened on September 8 and took place in the purpose-built courtroom in central Paris – an airy timber-frame structure with chairs and benches for 550 people.

For some, the desire for explanations seemed in vain.

Abdeslam “thinks of himself as a star, he teases us, is silent, enjoys the reactions he provokes,” said one of the prosecutor’s lawyers, Nicolas Le Bris, angrily at the end of March.

Two weeks later, the prime suspect, who was wearing a striped T-shirt and blue jacket, appeared to have changed his mind.

“All these people in here need my answers. I can’t promise anything but I’ll do my best,” said the 32-year-old, who has refused to cooperate during his six years behind bars.

– “Won’t do it” –

The Belgian-born son of Moroccan immigrants recounted what he said was his role in the attacks that sent shockwaves through France and Europe.

At a meeting in Belgium, where the IS cell is based, two days earlier, he had been asked by leader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a longtime friend, to take part in the attacks.

During the attack, which was coordinated from Syria, Abdeslam’s role was to blow himself up at a cafe in a trendy neighborhood of the 18th arrondissement, north of Paris.

He previously drove three suicide bombers to the Stade de France, where France were playing Germany in a football match attended by then-President Francois Hollande.

But when he got to the bar he had a change of heart, Abdeslam claimed.

“I go to the coffee shop, order a drink, look at the people around me and say to myself, ‘No, I’m not doing that,'” he told the court.

A few kilometers southeast, his older brother Brahim took up his mission and gunned down young people in cafes before blowing himself up.

A third group of jihadists ran into the Bataclan during an Eagles of Death Metal concert and shot indiscriminately. Ninety people died there.

Following his alleged change of heart, Abdeslam said he traveled south from Paris before phoning some friends in Brussels to pick him up.

He was on the run for four months before being found by Belgian police in his Molenbeek neighborhood in the Belgian capital, where he lived close to his family.

– Tears –

The apparent court breakthrough raised as many questions as it answered – and Abdeslam either refused or dodged follow-up.

Prosecutors had detailed how his suicide belt, later found by police, was actually defective.

That’s a more likely explanation for why it didn’t detonate, they said.

He had booked cars and rooms for fellow attackers on his own behalf in Paris, a lack of precautions suggesting he had no intention of surviving.

And in later found handwritten letters, including to his sister, he justified the attacks on “sinners” and regretted not having ended up among the “martyrs”.

When questioned in court, he did not name the bar he frequented, nor did he explain why he had acted alone while there were three of the other attackers.

“I changed my mind out of humanity, not fear,” he insisted.

“A fairy tale,” said the head of a victims’ association afterwards.

Two days later, a weeping Abdesalam presented his “condolences and apologies” in court.

“I know hate still exists… I ask you to hate me in moderation,” he pleaded.

Had a man dressed in black and defiantly professing himself as an “Islamic State fighter” delivered months of heartbreaking testimony?

Or was he trying to save his skin after telling the court about his suffering in solitary confinement and the fear of life behind bars?

– Therapeutic Justice –

The process was unprecedented in scope and complexity for France.

The investigation lasted six years and their written conclusions reach as far as 53 meters (174 feet) when lined up.

In addition to Abdeslam, 19 others are on trial, including other suspected members of the Brussels-based Islamic State cell and people accused of offering logistical support.

But the time given to victims to testify has also made the process special, sometimes giving it the feel of a mass therapy session.

“I had to feel the Bataclan, hear the bullets, the smell,” said the surviving father Stephane after testimonies in October.

He could have imagined what his son Hugo “felt that evening,” he said.

Filming trials for the national archives – recording in French courts is usually banned – means the trial will serve as a historical resource.

“When you participate, you hear everyone else’s stories of what they suffered, what they lost,” David Fritz Goeppinger, a hostage at the Bataclan, recently told AFP.

– Judgments Wednesday –

In their closing arguments, prosecutors condemned Abdesalam’s sentiments in court as a cynical ploy to get leniency from the five judges who will decide his fate.

By participating in the operation, he had “the blood of all the victims on his hands,” it said.

Although his guilt as a participant is beyond doubt, the judges must decide whether to agree to prosecutors’ demands for a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Much will depend on whether they believe the former drug dealer, who never condemned Islamic State’s atrocities, is capable of remorse and poses a threat for the rest of his life.

Arthur Denouveaux, Life for Paris survivor group leader, said after eight grueling months, people are now fed up.

“I’m not that interested in the verdicts themselves. It’s really about saying, ‘This is it. It’s behind us. The justice system has done its job, we can move on,'” he told AFP.

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