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Bataclan trial nears verdict

148 days of trial, descriptions of horror and a main defendant who does not want to be a murderer – in the trial of the attacks of November 13, 2015, the verdict was announced on Wednesday evening. The most important facts at a glance.

The attacks of November 13, 2015 hit Paris to the heart. The process of the events should also help to process what has been experienced.

Benoit Tessier / Reuters

It was an unparalleled trial that ended with the verdict being announced on Wednesday evening in Paris. The court in Paris found the lone surviving assassin and all but one of the other defendants guilty of all charges. More information will follow.

The focus of the trial was that evening, almost seven years ago, that severely traumatized France: on November 13, 2015, terrorists murdered 130 people in the French capital and injured hundreds more. Three assassins first detonated their explosive belts in front of the Stade de France, just as an international match between France and Germany was taking place there.

Then three terrorists opened fire on the crowded terraces of restaurants and bars in the east of the city. Shortly thereafter, three other men broke into the Bataclan concert hall and carried out a massacre there. The attacks, which the terrorist militia Islamic State claimed responsibility for, were the most costly that France had ever experienced.

For ten months, the country has reopened the events in court. Before the sentence is announced, here are the most important facts about the historical trial.

1. An extraordinary process – in more ways than one

The dimension of the process on November 13, 2015 is already special – which is partly due to the high number of victims. Around 2,500 people, survivors and bereaved families appeared as joint plaintiffs, represented by more than 300 lawyers. Around 450 of them have decided to describe what they have experienced in court.

The hearings took place in the largest courtroom in France, which was specially built for the occasion in the venerable Palais de Justice in central Paris. They extended over 148 days of the trial, which were recorded on video for posterity. They were preceded by four years of police and judicial investigations and meticulous preparations.

In contrast to the 2020 trial of the Islamist attacks on the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” and a Jewish supermarket in January 2015, not only middlemen and henchmen were on trial. But also men who are accused of being among the main organizers of the attacks, as well as Salah Abdeslam, the sole survivor of the ten-strong terrorist squad that carried out the attacks.

2. A surviving terrorist, fighters from Syria and accomplices – these are the accused

Twenty people have been charged by the anti-terrorist prosecutor’s office. Fourteen of them have appeared in court. Of the remaining six, five are believed to be dead and one is serving a prison sentence in Turkey. Of greatest interest was Salah Abdeslam as the sole surviving assassin. The 32-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan origin is said to have dropped three of the suicide bombers in front of the Stade de France.

His brother Brahim blew himself up in a bar. However, Salah Abdeslam did not detonate his own explosive belt. Instead, with the help of accomplices, he returned that same night to Brussels, where he grew up. He was arrested there in March 2016. In Belgium he has already been sentenced to twenty years in prison for shooting at the police.

The other accused are said to have helped prepare the attacks, procured papers, weapons or vehicles, or helped Abdeslam to escape. Among them are four people who were with the Islamic State terrorist militia in Syria. Like Osama Krayem, who can be seen in an IS video showing the murder of a Jordanian pilot. Like some other defendants, he is said to have been involved in the March 2016 bombings in Brussels. The public prosecutor’s office accused four of the men of being foiled assassins.

3. Harrowing reports, a former president as a witness and lingering questions – what the ten months have unearthed

Stories from the victims, witnesses and emergency services, questions about the omissions of the secret services and the radicalization of the suspected terrorists, psychiatric and psychological reports and the questioning of the accused – all this was part of the process.

The week-long descriptions of the survivors and bereaved were particularly formative. They reported on the horror of that night, the fear of death they felt, the children, siblings, partners and friends they had lost and the difficulties they had in finding their way back to everyday life after what they had experienced.

Former President François Hollande also took the stand. He wanted to show that the terrorists did not target France because of its operations in Iraq and Syria, but because of its way of life. Salah Abdeslam’s lawyer tried to use the fact that he made a timing error for the opposite argument.

The statements of investigators in Belgium brought little information about how the terrorists were able to get through the net before the attack. The fact that the investigators testified anonymously via video call and only answered evasively to many questions caused displeasure in the courtroom. Questions about the masterminds of the attack and other IS plans also remained unanswered.

However, the dimension of the process went beyond finding the law. For many of the victims, it was a step in coming to terms with the horrific experiences. Several of them said it gave them the feeling that they were not alone in their suffering.

4. Naive follower or determined warrior of the IS? – the two faces of Salah Abdeslam

Did Salah Abdeslam intend to detonate his explosive vest on the night of the assassination? This question has plagued investigators and the judiciary for a long time. The hope of finding a clear answer to this in the process has not been fulfilled. The 32-year-old, who had previously remained silent, said in court that he had aimed at a bar in north Paris but decided against detonating the explosive device “out of humanity, not fear”.

However, an expert came to the conclusion that the vest was defective. Whether Abdeslam didn’t want to ignite it or wasn’t able to do so remains an open question. The only survivor of the terrorist squad seemed to vacillate between two roles in court. On the one hand, he presented himself as a loyal IS “fighter” right at the start of the trial. He described the assassination as legitimate because French soldiers had fought against IS in Iraq and Syria.

On the other hand, he repeatedly presented himself as an unsuspecting follower who knew little about the details of the attacks. He tearfully begged the victims for forgiveness and to hate him “with moderation”. In his last statement he said: «I have made mistakes, but I am not a murderer, nobody who kills. If you convict me of murder, you are committing an injustice.”

5. The public prosecutor’s office demanded these penalties

For Abdeslam, prosecutors have asked for the highest penalty under French law: life imprisonment with indefinite preventive detention. This penalty has only been imposed four times in France. With her, an early release is almost impossible. Public prosecutor Camille Hennetier justified the demand, among other things, by saying that Abdeslam remained true to his ideological convictions to the end and that his reintegration into society was impossible.

Abdeslam’s lawyers warned against using the verdict as revenge for the suffering of the victims and their families. The trial should not be “a continuation of the war on terror by other means,” advocated Martin Vettes. His colleague Olivia Ronen warned that the required sentence would amount to a sentence of slow death. The public prosecutor’s office has asked for between five years and life imprisonment for the other 19 defendants.

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