(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.