A French court has convicted 20 men of carrying out or aiding Islamist terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris in 2015, following a trial that tested the nation’s judicial system and revived painful memories for victims.
Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving member of the so-called Islamic State group responsible for the attacks, was sentenced to life with no possibility of parole.
Chief judge Jean-Louis Périès took almost an hour to read out the verdict in a packed courtroom on Wednesday night. “After 148 days of hearings during which 415 victims gave testimony, the court wanted to lay out its reasoning in a fleshed-out manner,” he said.
Besides Abdeslam, five Islamic State figures, tried in absentia and presumed dead in Syria, were also sentenced to life without parole. Another defendant was sentenced to life, with parole possible after 22 years. A further three defendants were given 30-year sentences, which was lighter than the life terms that prosecutors had sought.
They were convicted on charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism stemming from actions including fighting for Islamic State group in Syria, helping to plan the attacks or providing logistical support.
The remaining defendants received shorter sentences ranging from two to 18 years for playing lesser supporting roles.
The verdict caps a landmark 10-month trial that took place in a purpose-built courtroom in the Paris Palais de Justice. It not only judged the accused but also gave a voice to the victims of the attacks.
The trial stemmed from the deadliest attack ever in peacetime France, carried out in November 2015 by a Franco-Belgian cell sent by the Islamic State group. The cell attacked people at a heavy metal concert at the Bataclan theatre, outside a football match at the Stade de France and at multiple café terraces and restaurants in eastern Paris. About 400 people were wounded.
The victims played a central role in the trial, with hundreds appearing in person to tell of their harrowing experiences during and after the attacks. Their participation reflected a distinctive aspect of the French legal system, which allows victims to join a case as civil parties and be represented by lawyers who can examine evidence, ask questions and call witnesses.
Virginie Sansico, a historian who observed the trial as part of a research group, said the proceedings as a consequence had a flavour of a truth commission aimed at forging France’s collective memory of the events.
“There were two parallel processes going on — judging the defendants and giving space to the victims to speak and heal,” she told France Info radio.
Bruno Poncet, a survivor of the Bataclan attack, said the trial had helped him but he was glad it was over. “Being a victim of terrorism is not my profession, so I want to move on to a new phase of my life,” said the 49-year-old railway worker.
Despite testimony from investigators, intelligence officials, academics and psychologists, some aspects of the attack remain unexplained and prosecutors acknowledge that they were not able to bring the top planners to justice.
Another mystery is why Abdeslam did not detonate his own explosive vest: whether the device was defective or he backed out of blowing himself up at a café in northern Paris out of “humanity”, as he claimed in his testimony. Judge Périès said the court had found that the vest was “not functional”, which “seriously calls into question the declarations of Abdeslam about renunciation”.
The views of the 32-year-old French citizen, who grew up in Molenbeek, a suburb of Brussels, switched at the trial between hostility, provocation and regret. On the first day he declared himself a soldier for Islamic State who justified the attacks as a response to French aggression in Syria but on the last day he apologised to victims. “I am not a killer,” he said.
The Bataclan attacks were part of a traumatic period for France, with terrorist acts ranging from the killing of journalists at the Charlie Hebdo magazine to an attack using a truck in Nice. Its effects still reverberate within the country, affecting debates on immigration and security as the far-right rises as a political force.
Georges Fenech, a judge and former deputy in the National Assembly who investigated intelligence failures leading to the attack, said in an interview before the trial that the that “ripple effects” were still being felt in French intelligence policies and in geopolitics in particular.
“There was a before and after November 13 2015 in France just as there was a before and after Sept 11 2001 in the US,” he said.