Paris: At long last, the fate of Salah Abdeslam has been decided: he has been found guilty of terrorism and murder charges by a criminal court.
Over the course of an extraordinary nine-month trial, the lone survivor of the Islamic State extremist team that attacked Paris in 2015 proclaimed his radicalism, wept, apologised to victims and pleaded with judges to forgive his “mistakes”.
For victims’ families and survivors of the attacks, the trial for Abdeslam and suspected accomplices has been excruciating yet crucial in their quest for justice and closure.
Salah Abdeslam, the leading suspect and the only surviving member of the nine-member attacking team that terrorised Paris on November 13, 2015.Credit:Belgium Police/AP
A special French court on Thursday (AEST) found 20 men guilty of involvement in the Islamic State terrorist attacks on the Bataclan theater, Paris cafes and France’s national stadium in 2015 that killed 130 people in the deadliest peacetime attacks in French history.
Abdeslam was the chief suspect and only survivor of the 10-member team of extremists. He was found guilty of murder and attempted murder in relation with a terrorist enterprise, among other charges. He faces up to life in prison without parole, the toughest sentence in France.
Of the defendants besides Abdeslam, 18 were handed various terrorism-related convictions, and one was convicted on a lesser fraud charge. The sentencing is expected later in the day.
Lawyers and other people queue outside the special courtroom in Paris ahead of the verdict.Credit:AP
For months, the packed main chamber and 12 overflow rooms in the 13th century Justice Palace heard the harrowing accounts by the victims, along with testimony from Abdeslam. The other defendants were largely accused of helping with logistics or transportation. At least one was accused of a direct role in the deadly March 2016 attacks in Brussels, which also was claimed by IS.
For survivors and those mourning loved ones, the trial was an opportunity to recount deeply personal accounts of the horrors inflicted that night and to listen to details of countless acts of bravery, humanity and compassion among strangers. Some hoped for justice, but most just wanted to tell the accused directly that they have been left irreparably scarred, but not broken.
The scene outside the Bataclan theatre in Paris, one of the sites hit by Islamic State terrorists in 2015.Credit:AP
“The assassins, these terrorists, thought they were firing into the crowd, into a mass of people,” said Dominique Kielemoes at the start of the trial in September 2021. Her son bled to death in one of the cafes. Hearing the testimony of victims was “crucial to both their own healing and that of the nation,” Kielemoes said.
“It wasn’t a mass — these were individuals who had a life, who loved, had hopes and expectations,” she said.
France changed after the attacks: authorities declared a state of emergency and armed officers now constantly patrol public spaces. The violence sparked soul-searching among the French and Europeans, since most of the attackers were born and raised in France or Belgium. And they transformed forever the lives of all those who suffered losses or bore witness.
Salah Abdeslam, left, walking through a market in Brussels in 2016, was one of 20 people on trial for the 2015 Paris attacks.Credit:AP
Presiding judge Jean-Louis Peries said at the trial’s outset that it belonged to “international and national events of this century.” France emerged from the state of emergency in 2017, after incorporating many of the harshest measures into law.
Fourteen of the defendants have been in court, including Abdeslam, the only survivor of the 10-member attacking team that terrorised Paris that Friday night. All but one of the six absent men are presumed to have been killed in Syria or Iraq; the other is in prison in Turkey.
Most of the suspects are accused of helping create false identities, transporting the attackers back to Europe from Syria or providing them with money, phones, explosives or weapons.
Abdeslam, a 32-year-old Belgian with Moroccan roots, was the only defendant tried on several counts of murder and kidnapping as a member of a terrorist organisation.
A victim lays under a blanket outside the Bataclan theatre in Paris in November 2015.Credit:AP
The sentence sought for Abdeslam of life in prison without parole has only been pronounced four times in France — for crimes related to rape and murder of minors.
Prosecutors were seeking life sentences for nine other defendants. The remaining suspects were tried on lesser terrorism charges and faced sentences ranging from five to 30 years.
In closing arguments, prosecutors stressed that all 20 defendants, who had fanned out around the French capital, armed with semi-automatic rifles and explosives-packed vests to mount parallel attacks, were members of the IS extremist group responsible for the massacres.
“Not everyone is a jihadi, but all of those you are judging accepted to take part in a terrorist group, either by conviction, cowardliness or greed,” prosecutor Nicolas Braconnay told the court this month.
This courtroom sketch shows key defendant Salah Abdeslam, at left and in black at centre, with court president Jean-Louis Peries, right, in the special courtroom built for the 2015 attacks trial.Credit:AP
Some defendants, including Abdeslam, said innocent civilians were targeted because of France’s policies in the Middle East and hundreds of civilian deaths in Western airstrikes in Syria and Iraq on Islamic State fighters.
During his testimony, former president François Hollande dismissed claims that his government was at fault.
The Islamic State, “this pseudo-state, declared war with the weapons of war,” Hollande said. The Paris attackers did not terrorise, shoot, kill, maim and traumatise civilians because of religion, he said, adding it was “fanaticism and barbarism”.
The night of the attack was a balmy Friday evening, with the city’s bars and restaurants packed. At the Bataclan concert venue, the American band Eagles of Death Metal was playing to a full house. At the national stadium, a soccer match between France and Germany had just begun, attended by Hollande and then German chancellor Angela Merkel.
The sound of the first suicide bombing at 9.16pm barely carried over the noise of the stadium’s crowd. The second came four minutes later. A squad of gunmen opened fire at several bars and restaurants in another part of Paris. That bloodshed outside came to an end at 9.41pm.
Worse was to follow. At 9.47pm, three more gunmen burst into the Bataclan, firing indiscriminately. Ninety people died within minutes. Hundreds were held hostage – some gravely injured – inside the concert hall for hours before Hollande, watching people covered in blood make their way out of the Bataclan, ordered it stormed.
Abdeslam was silent for years, refusing to speak to investigators. In April, his words started flowing, in testimony that at times contradicted earlier statements, including on his loyalty to IS.
He told the court that he was a last-minute addition to the group. He said he “renounced” his mission to detonate his explosives-packed vest in a bar in northern Paris that night. He hid out at first near Paris, and then fled with friends to Brussels, where he was arrested four months later.
Prosecutors emphasised contradictions in Abdeslam’s testimony — from pledging allegiance to IS at the start of the trial and expressing regret that his explosives strapped to his body failed to detonate, to claiming he had changed his mind in the bar and deliberately disabled his vest because he did not want to kill people “singing and dancing”.
During closing arguments on Monday, Abdelslam’s lawyer Olivia Ronen told a panel of judges that her client was the only one in the group of attackers who didn’t set off explosives to kill others that night. He can’t be convicted for murder, she argued.
“If a life sentence without hope for ever experiencing freedom again is pronounced, I fear we have lost a sense of proportion,” Ronan said. She emphasised through the trial that she was “not providing legitimacy to the attacks” by defending her client in court.
Abdeslam apologised to the victims at his final court appearance on Monday, saying his remorse and sorrow was heartfelt and sincere. Listening to victims’ accounts of “so much suffering” changed him, he said.
“I have made mistakes, it’s true, but I am not a murderer, I am not a killer,” he said.
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