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France relives horror of 2015 Paris attacks as historic trial opens

A lengthy criminal trial that began Wednesday in Paris reopens the still-healing wounds of the horrific Islamic State attack that killed 130 people and wounded nearly 500 on a Friday night in November 2015 in the French capital.

(CN) — The largest criminal trial in modern French history began on Wednesday when prosecutors opened their case against 20 men who were allegedly involved in the Islamic State's horrific November 2015 terrorist attacks in central Paris.

On Nov. 13, a Friday night, 10 jihadists killed 130 people and wounded nearly 500 others in attacks at the Bataclan concert hall, France's national soccer stadium, the Stade de France, and at cafes and restaurants. Investigators believe the attack was ordered by the Islamic State's high commanders in Raqqa, Syria.

The attackers detonated explosive vests, opened fired at busy restaurants and cafes and killed 90 people attending a rock concert by the Eagles of Death Metal, an American band, inside the Bataclan theater.

It was the worst atrocity in France since the end of World War II and it shook the nation similar to what happened in the United States on the Sept. 11, 2001. In its wake, France saw an outpouring of grief and an upsurge of national unity but also a rise in xenophobia and the passage of laws giving police more powers.

The monumental trial is taking place in a specially constructed courtroom inside France's most historic judicial building, the Palace of Justice on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the River Seine in central Paris. The courtroom cost 10 million euros ($11.8 million) to build and it can seat more than 500 people.

Only one of the 20 men on trial allegedly took part in the Paris massacre. The others are accused of helping coordinate the highly orchestrated attacks by renting places to hide weapons and explosives, rounding up cash, renting cars for the assailants, transporting attackers across borders and obtaining fake documents.

The accused, many of them Belgian-Moroccans, are mostly in their 20s and 30s and face a variety of charges, including complicity with murder, hostage-taking and organizing a terrorist conspiracy. Most of them face sentences that range from 20 years to life in prison.

Their cases will be decided by a panel of judges and the criminal proceedings are expected to last at least nine months until late May, a record length. About 300 witnesses are expected to testify. The French justice ministry said the 47,000 depositions and statements collected for the trial would reach up to 173 feet in height if the papers were stacked up.

Nearly 1,800 civil plaintiffs – mostly survivors and relatives of those killed – represented by about 300 lawyers are bringing suit too and the court will hear testimony from many of them. Under some European legal systems, civil cases can he heard in conjunction with criminal proceedings.

Weeks of testimony from survivors, witnesses and victims' relatives will vividly bring back to life the horrors of that Friday night in Paris. On the eve of the trial, many of their stories of terror and lingering trauma filled newspapers and television reports in Europe.

One account came from Theresa Cede, an Austrian woman and plaintiff who survived the Bataclan attack only thanks to the body of man who was shot and fell next to her.

“I owe him my life. I was shielded by his body, while the shooting continued around us,” she told the BBC, the British broadcaster.

Nearly six years later, she is still haunted by what happened.

“Things suddenly bubble up,” she said. “When one of my sons had a birthday the sulfur smell of the candles set me off. When he went to a show with his school, the sight of the theatre with those velvet seats was another trigger.”

Billed as a demonstration of French justice and the power of democracy, many hope the trial will serve as an antidote to radicalization and help France overcome the trauma it has suffered from a series of Islamist terrorist attacks.


“This trial has been a long time coming and I am happy the wait is over,” Arthur Denouveaux, who was in the Bataclan theater when it was attacked, told France 24, a French broadcaster. He helps run a victims association called Life for Paris.

But he said he also felt anxious about how the trial will unfold and has kept his expectations low.

“It's a question mark: Can the normal justice system of a democracy be effective against such barbarism?” he said. “It is a test both of our justice system and our democracy.”

The legal proceedings are taking place at a volatile moment in France and will overlap with presidential elections set for next April. Anti-Muslim rhetoric has become common in France and it may only become louder as the election draws nearer.

French President Emmanuel Macron's main rival is Marine Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing anti-immigrant National Rally, an offshoot of her father's xenophobic National Front party.

Macron has adopted anti-Islamic rhetoric too and recently passed a set of new laws that target radical Islamists. Muslims see the laws as discriminatory.

There is a risk the trial will also be used as a propaganda platform by the Islamic State.

This sketch shows key defendant Salah Abdeslam, right, and Mohammed Abrini in a special courtroom built for a terrorism trial in Paris on Wednesday. (Noelle Herrenschmidt/AP)

That possibility became clear on Wednesday when the sole surviving member of the November attack, 31-year-old French-Moroccan Salah Abdeslam, broke months of silence and spoke at the opening of the trial.

When a judge asked him to confirm his personal details, Abdeslam used the moment to tout his Islamic State ideology.

“I want to testify that there is no God except Allah and that Mohammad is his servant,” the defendant said, standing up and speaking into a microphone, according to news reports.

When the judge asked him what his profession was before he was arrested, he said: “I gave up my job to become an Islamic State soldier.”

It is unknown if Abdeslam will testify at the trial. He is seen as pivotal to unlocking many aspects of how the attacks were planned and carried out. Investigators say he has mostly refused to talk about his role in the attacks.

Denouveaux, the Bataclan survivor, said he does not expect to get truthful answers from Abdeslam and the others standing trial.

“I don't expect anything from them,” he said in his interview with France 24.

Abdeslam initially told investigators that he didn't detonate his suicide vest because he no longer believed in the mission. However, it is believed he fled to Belgium with the help of two others because the vest malfunctioned. In 2018, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting at police officers shortly before he was arrested on March 18, 2016.

The other nine attackers were slain in police shootouts or killed themselves after detonating explosive vests. Salah Abdeslam's brother, Brahim, blew himself up on the terrace of the Comptoir Voltaire bar.

Most of the attackers were French citizens who traveled to territories controlled by Islamic State in Syria for military training. It's believed they were able to slip back into Europe undetected by hiding among the hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into the European Union in 2015 as the Syrian civil war raged.

Investigations also revealed that police in Belgium and France were monitoring some of the suspected jihadists but regardless failed to prevent the attacks. There is hope that the trial will shed more light on intelligence failures. Investigators, experts and officials are set to testify too.

“The victims I'm representing are hoping to perhaps get some answers because to this day they don't understand why it happened,” Samia Maktouf, a lawyer, told France 24. “Could something have been done to prevent this disaster?”

Francois Hollande, the Socialist president of France at the time of the massacre, is due to testify during the trial. Hollande has spoken frequently about how the attacks and Islamist terrorism defined his presidency.

“Each time a new terrorist attack occurs, it plunges me back into that dark night,” Hollande recently told Le Parisien newspaper. At the time, he called the attacks “an act of war.”

The Paris attacks shocked France and the rest of Europe, ushering in an era of fear, anxiety, xenophobia and new policing techniques.

Just before midnight on Nov. 13, 2015, Hollande declared a state of emergency that was only supposed to last 12 days but ended up staying in place for nearly two years. After the attacks, France passed laws giving police greater powers and the country saw civil liberties curtailed.

The threat posed by Islamic terrorists has divided French society. There are those who accuse the authorities of turning France into a police state under a kind of permanent state of emergency while others see the state not doing enough to fight Islamic terrorism at home and abroad.

In the meantime, French have become accustomed to the sight of armed soldiers on their streets and accepted restrictions to their civil liberties. France's highest court, the Constitutional Council, in August approved the new laws targeting Islamic extremism.

French intelligence services, meanwhile, are reportedly monitoring about 7,500 individuals deemed to be prone to become dangerous extremists. French authorities claim their anti-terrorist tactics have thwarted more than 30 attacks.

After the Paris attacks, France suffered another mass casualty event in July 2016 when a Tunisian man living in France drove a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing 86 people. Since then other mass killings have not taken place though France has been hit by a string of smaller attacks, including the beheading last year of a middle school teacher who showed his class controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

In this trial, 11 suspects, including Abdeslam, are being placed under tight security inside a glass booth. Three others who are not in custody but under judicial control are seated in front of the glass booth.

Six other men are being tried in absentia. It is believed four or five of these men – including Oussama Atar, a Belgian-Moroccan believed to be the mastermind behind the attack – were killed in Western attacks against Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq. One man, Ahmed Dahmani, is serving a 10-year sentence in Turkey, which refused to allow his transfer to Paris to stand trial.

A cell of Islamic State jihadists based in Brussels is accused of being behind the attacks. Investigators accuse the same network of deadly attacks in Brussels later in March 2016.

Due to the importance of the trial, it is being filmed for posterity, a rarity in France. Meanwhile, civil plaintiffs will be allowed to follow the proceedings through a secure audio link, which is a first for a French court. Video and audio will not be made available to the public during the trial, a common practice in Europe.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow Cain Burdeau on Twitter

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