Pronouncement of judgment in the Paris terror trial: Chapter comes to an end

After ten months of negotiations, the trial of suspected helpers in the November 2015 attacks ends. The role of the sole survivor of the commando remains unclear. But the process has helped many to get a more complete picture of the night of horror.

In Paris, plaques commemorate the victims of the terrorist attacks, here in the 11th arrondissement, where the terrorists shot people on a terrace from a car.

Abdulmonam Eassa/Getty

In the past ten months, Paul-Henri Baure has made the journey from his home in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois in the south of Paris to the old Palace of Justice on the Île de la Cité around 140 times. He faced security checks before taking a seat in the large, all-wooden courtroom, mostly at the front right. As a rule, he only left it when the presiding judge had declared the session over. Sometimes it was after 8 p.m. in the evening. “I want to understand,” says the 71-year-old as justification.

Baure is one of 2,500 joint plaintiffs in the largest lawsuit in French history. On November 13, 2015, he headed a team of security guards at Gate H of the Stade de France. The football friendly between France and Germany was in full swing when an explosion occurred a few meters from Baure.

Baure was thrown away. He spent the night in the hospital with injuries to his leg and ankle. The next morning he believed he had been the victim of a gas explosion that someone had started with a cigarette. It was not until the following day that he found out that the author, whom he had definitely noticed, had blown himself up with an explosive belt. And that this man was part of a terrorist squad that had killed 130 people and injured several hundred across Paris.

Salah Abdeslam, a two-faced defendant

In the courtroom, a few meters separate Baure from the fourteen defendants who appeared before the court. Eleven of them are seated in a glass box on the left, each with at least one armed policeman behind them. Among them are suspected helpers, but also one who has been shown to have been in Paris that night: Salah Abdeslam. Three other defendants are at large and have been following the debates on folding chairs for ten months, four days a week, sometimes five.

On the final day of the hearing earlier this week, the floor is yours again. All but one decide to talk; it could be the last time before they disappear into prison for years. They utter words of regret and thanks: to their lawyers, to the court, but also to the survivors, whose testimony would have touched them. Ironically, those who face the smallest penalties are close to tears: “I’m so scared of your decision,” says Abdellah Chouaa. He wears glasses and a jacket. The 41-year-old is said to have supported the preparations for the attacks with transport services in Brussels – like everyone else, he denies having known about his friends’ plans.

Finally, Salah Abdeslam is given the floor. He is believed to be the sole survivor of the assassins. The public prosecutor is asking for the highest sentence provided for by French law: life imprisonment with indefinite preventive detention. The now 32-year-old Frenchman drove the three suicide bombers to the Stade de France. He threw away the explosive belt he was carrying with him that night south of Paris. Because he had changed his mind, out of humanity, not out of fear, he said in a survey in the spring. He wants nothing to do with planning the attacks. He only found out about his brother’s plans two days earlier, who is believed to be one of the masterminds of the attacks.

Abdeslam changed his demeanor during the trial like no other. He, who remained staunchly silent during the five-year investigation, described himself on the first day of the trial as follows: “I am a soldier of the Islamic State.” At times he refused to testify, provoking judges and lawyers. Then he apparently willingly told about his past.

Now, ten months later, he repeats his apology to the victims, which he had already expressed in tears in the spring. This time he seems composed. He justified his transformation by saying that after six years in solitary confinement, he suffered a social shock when he came into the courtroom. He came to rest because the process gave him a kind of social life again. He concludes with an appeal to the judges: “I acknowledge that I made mistakes, but I’m not a killer and I’m not a murderer. If you convict me of murder, you are committing an injustice.”

This was also his lawyers’ line of defense. Her plea lasted about four hours, the aim of which was to avert the indefinite preventive detention, which amounts to a sentence to slow death. Olivia Ronen argued that the required punishment is actually the punishment that should be given to the assassins. But because they are all dead, you have to punish someone in their place – even if you know that Abdeslam was neither in the “Bataclan” nor shot at people in the restaurants. Her colleague Martin Vettes said there was a feeling that a historic trial should be followed by a historic punishment.

The three prosecutors appeared to be well aware of the possibly too high expectations of the process. “He was loaded with symbols and hopes that were sometimes too big for him,” said Camille Hennetier. But the judiciary can contribute to a collective narrative, channeling anger and putting the unthinkable into words and images. This desire of the prosecution found expression in their relentless demands for the sentence. In their eyes, Abdeslam’s contradictory appearance was only intended to downplay his role and cover up his complicity. With Abdeslam, they drew a lost fanatic from whom society should be protected – forever.

Draw a line with the verdict – or not

The largest trial in French history was not able to provide any substantial new insights into the preparation and course of the attacks or the failures of the security authorities in France or Belgium. But many of the joint plaintiffs who have spoken out in the press in recent months hope that the verdict will also put an end to the processing of a trauma. One of the two great victims’ associations, life for paris, has therefore announced its dissolution this week: in three years, a decade after the attacks. The end of the process should be the beginning of an “after”, it said in the communiqué.

Paul-Henri Baure says the chapter is not closed for him after the verdict. He doesn’t mean that in relation to his mental state, which fortunately never suffered much – “I think because at the moment of the bang I thought of a gas accident”. He was also physically well again after 30 months on crutches.

Baure is convinced that there will be an appeal process. Then he will be back in the courtroom. He has learned a lot over the past few months: from the stories of the other joint plaintiffs, who have described the horror of the night from a different perspective, from the numerous experts and finally also from the defense lawyers, who have done an excellent job. For him, the defendants are guys who have been manipulated and who you could feel sorry for. Baure wants to believe that her words of remorse and apology were meant seriously.

Little helpers and presumed accomplices

The five judges of the special court withdrew for two days to deliberate. Her sentencing decision was expected late Wednesday evening. Only 14 of the 20 accused appeared in court. Prosecutors are asking for prison sentences of between five years and life imprisonment.

Salah Abdeslam is considered the sole survivor of the ten Paris attackers. He had dropped off three suicides at the Stade de France. While his accomplices were murdering in the city center, he disposed of his explosive belt south of Paris and had an accomplice drive him back to Brussels that same night. The public prosecutor is demanding the highest penalty provided for by French law: life imprisonment followed by definitive preventive detention.

The role ofn Mohammed Abrini, a childhood friend of Salah Abdeslam, remains unclear. Apparently he knew early on about the attack plans. In court, he said that he had been intended as an assassin but gave up at the last moment. Abdeslam stepped in for him. Abrini was also spotted at Brussels Airport on March 22, 2016, alongside two men with packages of explosives that detonated the same day. Abrini did not take action there either. Since then he has been nicknamed “the man with the hat”. Prosecutors are asking for a life sentence with a 22-year safety period.

Mohammed Bakkali is said to have been involved in the prevented attack on a Thalys train in August 2015. For this he was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a French court. He is said to have rented apartments and cars for the Paris attackers. The public prosecutor’s office demands a life sentence with a safety period of 22 years.

Investigators assume that five of the six absent were killed in fighting in the Iraqi-Syrian border area. Another is serving a prison sentence in Turkey.

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