- Aug 25, 2020
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French Gendarmes secure the area near the Paris courthouse on the Ile de la Cite France during the arrival of a convoy carrying the defendants standing trial for the November 2015 attacks in Paris. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)
With a heavy security presence, the trial of 20 men accused in a series of co-ordinated attacks on Paris in 2015 that spread fear across Europe and transformed France opened Wednesday in a custom-built complex embedded within a 13th-century courthouse.
Survivors of the attacks as well as those who mourn the dead packed the courtrooms, which were designed to hold 1,800 plaintiffs and more than 300 lawyers.
Nine Islamic State group gunmen and suicide bombers struck within minutes of one another at several locations around Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, leaving 130 people dead and hundreds wounded. The worst carnage was at the Bataclan concert hall, where three men with assault rifles gunned down scores of people and grabbed a handful of hostages.
The presiding judge, Jean-Louis Peries, acknowledged the extraordinary nature of the attacks, which changed both security in Europe and France's political landscape, and the trial to come. France only emerged from the state of emergency declared in the wake of the attacks in 2017, after incorporating many of the harshest measures into law.
"The events that we are about to decide are inscribed in their historic intensity as among the international and national events of this century," he said.
Lone extremist-cell survivor faces murder charge
The lone survivor of the extremist cell from that night, Salah Abdeslam, is the key defendant. Abdeslam appeared on Wednesday wearing a black short-sleeved shirt and black trousers.
Twenty men are charged. Abdeslam is the only one charged with murder, with the other defendants who were present facing lesser terrorism charges.
Six are being charged in absentia — some are no longer presumed to be alive by intelligence officials, but have never been officially declared dead.
Abdeslam, whose brother Brahim was among the suicide bombers, appeared intent on provoking those assembled to see justice done Wednesday. Dressed all in black, mask included, he declared his profession to be "fighter for Islamic State" and later burst out with complaints about treatment in prison.
Abdeslam, who abandoned his rental car in northern Paris and discarded a malfunctioning suicide vest that night in 2015 before fleeing home to Brussels, has refused to speak with investigators.
But he holds the answers to many of the remaining questions about the attack and the people who planned it, both in Europe and abroad.
The same ISIS network went on to strike Brussels months later, killing another 32 people.
Lengthy trial expected
The trial is scheduled to last nine months. The month of September will be dedicated to laying out the police and forensic evidence. October will be given over to victims' testimony. From November to December, officials including former French president François Hollande will testify, as will relatives of the attackers.
Abdeslam will be questioned multiple times.
Dominique Kielemoes, whose son bled to death at one of the cafes that night, said the month dedicated to victims' testimonies at the trial will be crucial to both their own healing and that of the nation.
"The assassins, these terrorists, thought they were firing into the crowd, into a mass of people. But it wasn't a mass — these were individuals who had a life, who loved, had hopes and expectations, and that we need to talk about at the trial. It's important," she said.
The modern courtroom was constructed within the storied 13th-century Palais de Justice in Paris, where Marie Antoinette and Emile Zola faced trial, among others.
For the first time, victims can have a secure audio link to listen from home, if they want, with a 30-minute delay.
The attacks transformed France, which declared a state of emergency that night in 2015 and now has armed officers constantly patrolling public spaces. It also changed forever the lives of those who suffered losses or bore witness to the violence.
"Our ability to be carefree is gone," Kielemoes said. "The desire to go out, travel — all of that's gone. Even if we still do a number of things, our appetite for life has disappeared."
For Jean-Luc Wertenschlag, who lives above the cafe where Kielemoes' son died and who rushed downstairs soon after the first gunshots to try and save lives, it has even changed the way he moves around the city where he was born and raised.
"What we did that evening with other people, to provide assistance to the people wounded during the attack, was a way to stand against what these monsters had tried to do to us," he said.
Hollande said Wednesday he would speak "not for the sake of French politics, but for the victims of the attacks." He said he keenly felt the weight of responsibility that night and for the days and weeks later.
"When the cameras are turned off, you go back to the solitude of the Élysée [presidential palace]," Hollande told told France-Info. "You ask what can I do? … Is what just happened going to change society?"
None of the court proceedings will be televised or rebroadcast to the public, but they will be recorded for archival purposes.
Video recording has only been allowed for a handful of cases in France considered to be of historical value, including last year's trial for the 2015 attacks against the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris and a kosher supermarket.