By PHILIPPE SOTTO
PARIS (AP) — A French court acquitted a man charged with harboring Islamic extremists after they carried out the 2015 Paris attacks, bringing a surprising end Wednesday to the first criminal trial from the country’s deadliest extremist violence since World War II.
The presiding judge said the Paris court found Jawad Bendaoud, 31, a confirmed street criminal, not guilty of providing lodging to two of the attackers and helping them hide from police when they were the most-wanted criminals in France.
Addressing Bendaoud at a verdict hearing, Judge Isabelle Prevost-Desprez said the evidence was “insufficient to prove your guilt.”
Bendaoud, who was standing behind a glass-enclosed dock, blew kisses to the public and his lawyers upon hearing of his acquittal. He faced up to six years in prison if he was convicted of harboring terrorists.
Bendaoud denied knowing the identity of the men to whom he rented a small flat in Saint-Denis. One of the two men he sheltered was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks.
The court also convicted and sentenced two co-defendants Wednesday.
Mohamed Soumah, who was accused of acting as an intermediary with Bendaoud to secure lodging for the two fugitives, received a 5-year prison sentence. Youssef Ait-Boulahcen, who was accused of knowing the extremist’s whereabouts and not informing authorities, was sentenced to three years plus another year that was suspended.
Both had denied the accusations.
Bendaoud has been imprisoned for 27 months pending his trial. It’s unclear when he will be released.
The Nov. 13, 2015, attacks on Paris cafes, the national stadium and the Bataclan concert hall left 130 people dead. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility.
The prosecutor had requested a 4-year term for Bendaoud, saying he knew he was giving refuge to criminals but evidence to prove he knew the renters took part in the Paris attacks
Of the nine men who directly carried out the 2015 Paris attacks, seven died at the scene. The two surviving killers fled and were killed on Nov. 18, 2015 during an hours-long police siege at the Saint-Denis apartment.
During the trial, Bendaoud said he rented the apartment to the two men only to make money. He claimed he thought at the time that all the extremists had died in the attacks.
Bendaoud also insisted he had nothing to do with terrorists or jihadist ideology because “I love life, women, my son and my mother too much.”
Investigators found no extremist files or traces of jihadist sites in computers and phones used by Bendaoud, and nothing showing his possible religious “radicalization.”
Bendaoud won immediate fame all over France when he gave a surprising TV interview during the police raid on the apartment. He approached the security perimeter around the besieged building and spoke to journalists to clumsily proclaim his innocence.
“I wasn’t aware they were terrorists,” he told a reporter from BFMTV channel.
“I was told to put up two people for three days, I helped out normally,” he continued before a police officer arrested him live on camera.
While the trial didn’t directly deal with the attacks, it was important for survivors and families of victims who are seeking justice. About 500 victims of the attacks and their relatives joined the legal action as civil parties in the case, or applied to be registered as plaintiffs.