The sole survivor of a team of ISIS extremists that terrorized Paris in 2015, was convicted Wednesday of murder and other charges and sentenced to life without parole for the deadliest peacetime attacks in French history.
The Special Terrorism Court also convicted 19 other men involved in the attack on the Bataclan concert hall, cafes and national stadium, which killed 130 people and injured hundreds, some of them permanently disfigured. It also led to intensified French military action against extremists abroad and a lasting shift in French security posture at home.
Survivors and victims’ families emerged from the crowded courtroom dazed or exhausted after an excruciating nine-month process that was pivotal in their quest for justice and closure.
Main suspect Salah Abdeslam has been found guilty of murder and attempted murder in connection with a terrorist enterprise. The court ruled that his explosive vest was not functioning properly and rejected his argument that he had dumped the vest because he decided not to continue his part of the attack on the night of November 13, 2015.
The other nine attackers blew themselves up or were killed by police that night.
Abdeslam, a 32-year-old Belgian, was given the harshest possible sentence in France. The sentence of life without parole has been handed down in the country only four times – for crimes related to rape and murder of minors. Neither he nor his lawyer spoke publicly after the verdict.
Of the defendants, in addition to Abdeslam, 18 received different convictions related to terrorism, and one was convicted on a lesser charge of fraud. Some received life sentences; others walked free after being sentenced to time served.
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They have 10 days to appeal. The verdicts were widely expected, and those present showed little surprise; especially a little relief.
“I hope to put the word ‘victim’ in the past,” said Arthur Denouveaux, who survived the Bataclan massacre.
“When things like this happen, repair is not possible. That’s why you have justice,” he said, even though “justice cannot do everything.”
During the trial, Abdeslam initially proclaimed his radicalism, but later appeared to evolve, crying, apologizing to the victims and begging judges to forgive his “mistakes.”
For months, the overcrowded main room and 12 landing rooms in the 13th-century Palace of Justice heard harrowing stories from the victims, along with testimonies from Abdeslam. The other suspects were largely accused of helping with logistics or transportation. At least one is accused of a direct role in the deadly March 2016 attacks in Brussels, also claimed by the ISIS group.
The trial was an opportunity for survivors and grieving loved ones to talk about the deeply personal horrors inflicted that night and to hear the details of countless acts of courage, humanity and compassion among strangers. Some hoped for justice, but most just wanted to tell the accused directly that they were scarred beyond repair, but not broken.
“I feel like I grew up” thanks to the trial, said David Fritz Geoppinger, who was held hostage in the Bataclan. “As a victim, it’s important to hear justice spoken.”
France has changed in the wake of the attacks: authorities have declared a state of emergency and armed officers are now constantly patrolling public areas. The violence sparked soul-searching among the French and Europeans, as most of the attackers were born and raised in France or Belgium. And they changed forever the lives of all those who have suffered losses or testified.
Presiding Judge Jean-Louis Peries said at the beginning of the trial that it is one of “international and national events of this century. France came out of a state of emergency in 2017 after enacting many of the toughest measures.
Fourteen of the defendants were in court, including Abdeslam. All but one of the six men convicted in absentia are killed in Syria or Iraq; the other is in prison in Turkey.
Most of the suspects were charged with helping to create false identities, transport the attackers from Syria to Europe or provide them with money, telephones, explosives or weapons. Abdeslam was the only defendant to be tried as a member of a terrorist organization on several charges of murder and kidnapping.
“Not everyone is a jihadist, but all those you judge have accepted to join a terrorist group, whether through conviction, cowardice or greed,” prosecutor Nicolas Braconnay told the court in closing arguments this month.
Some defendants, including Abdeslam, said innocent civilians were targeted because of French policies in the Middle East and hundreds of civilian deaths in Western airstrikes in ISIS-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq.
During his testimony, former President François Hollande rejected claims that his government was guilty. The Paris attackers shot, killed, mutilated and traumatized civilians not because of religion, he said, but “fanaticism and barbarity.”
The night of the attack was a balmy Friday night, with bars and restaurants packed across the city. At the Bataclan concert hall, the American band Eagles of Death Metal played to a full house. A football match between France and Germany had just started at the national stadium, attended by then-President Hollande and then-Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The sound of the first suicide bombing at 9:16 p.m. could barely exceed the noise of the stadium crowd. The second came four minutes later. A group of gunmen opened fire on several bars and restaurants in another part of Paris.
Worse was to follow. At 9:47 PM, three more gunmen burst into the Bataclan and fired randomly. Ninety people died within minutes. Hundreds were held hostage – some seriously injured – in the hall for hours before Hollande ordered a storm.
During closing arguments Monday, Abdelslam’s lawyer Olivia Ronen told a panel of judges that her client should not be convicted of murder because he was the only one in the group of assailants who did not set off explosives that night to kill others.
“If a life sentence is handed down with no hope of ever experiencing freedom again, I fear we have lost sense of proportion,” Ronen said. She emphasized during the trial that she “does not legitimize the attacks” by defending her client in court.
Abdeslam apologized to the victims at his latest court hearing Monday, saying his regret and grief are sincere and sincere. Listening to victims’ stories of “so much suffering” has changed him, he said.
“I’ve made mistakes, it’s true, but I’m not a murderer,” he said.
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