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France to relive Charlie Hebdo attacks as landmark terror trial opens in Paris court

Flowers are seen outside the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's former office on the fifth anniversary of the attack and a siege at a Kosher supermarket that killed 17 people in Paris, France on January 7, 2020.
Flowers are seen outside the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's former office on the fifth anniversary of the attack and a siege at a Kosher supermarket that killed 17 people in Paris, France on January 7, 2020. © Gonzalo Fuentes, REUTERS
7 min

The trial of the deadly January 2015 terrorist attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, police officers and a kosher supermarket opens in a Paris court Wednesday after five years of investigations and a delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Fourteen suspects will be tried during proceedings that will be filmed and feature victim testimonies.

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More than five years after a three-day killing spree in the Paris area that claimed 17 lives – including some of France’s leading cartoonists – victims of the January 2015 attacks and their loved ones will finally face suspects during a special terror trial.

Over the next few months, 14 suspects – including three in absentia who may be dead – will be tried at a courthouse in northwest Paris amid tight security.

The suspects are being tried for assisting in terror attacks, including supplying weapons and financing to three jihadists who were killed shortly after the attacks.

The hearings are set to reopen a traumatic chapter in contemporary French history, which started on January 7, 2015, when two brothers – Saïd and Chérif Kouachi – stormed into Charlie Hebdo’s Paris offices, killing 12 people, including a police officer outside the premises.

The assault ushered three days of bloodshed that ended when Amedy Coulibaly, a friend of the Kouachi brothers, was killed after attacking a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris.

The trial was scheduled to start before the summer, but was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and will accommodate fewer observers in the court room due to social distancing measures.

It will be one of only a dozen trials to be filmed in France due to the judicial importance and “emotion stirred” by the attacks, which “profoundly marked the history of national and international terrorism”, according to anti-terrorist prosecutors.

The January 2015 attacks triggered a rallying of national unity encapsulated by the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan. It also heralded a wave of Islamist violence that year and raised unsettling questions about modern France's ability to preserve security and harmony in a multicultural society.

While the trial is immensely important, it could also be traumatic, with the proceedings including statements and testimonies from survivors and loved ones of victims who have waited more than five years for justice. “This is completely new: the first few weeks of this trial will be devoted to the victims' words," explained anti-terrorist prosecutor Jean-François Ricard in an interview with France Info radio on Monday. "They will be able to explain, question, try to understand, and that is fundamental."

Charlie Hebdo republishes Prophet Mohammed cartoons

Accredited journalists from 90 national and foreign news organisations will be reporting on the trial. French cartoonist François Boucq and writer Yannick Haenel will be covering the trial for Charlie Hebdo, posting daily reports on the magazine’s website on the progress of a trial in which "we are not just witnesses", as Editor-in-Chief Gérard Biard explained to AFP.

Charlie Hebdo’s cover on Wednesday, marking the start of the trial, features republished Prophet Mohammed cartoons that were originally published by Danish daily Jyllands-Posten in 2005, and then reprinted by the French satirical weekly in 2006, unleashing a storm of anger and blasphemy charges across the Muslim world.

The controversial drawings “belong to history, and history cannot be rewritten nor erased”, the satirical weekly said Tuesday.

In the centre of the cover is a cartoon of the prophet drawn by its cartoonist Jean Cabut, known as Cabu, who was killed in the January 2015 attack.

"All of this, just for that," the front-page headline says.

The magazine’s editorial maintained it was the right time to republish the cartoons, saying it was "essential" as the trial opens.

"We have often been asked since January 2015 to print other caricatures of Mohammed," it said.

"We have always refused to do so, not because it is prohibited – the law allows us to do so – but because there was a need for a good reason to do it, a reason which has meaning and which brings something to the debate."

Suspects fleeing and likely dead in IS group’s ‘caliphate’

On Wednesday, in a court room on the second floor of the Tribunal de Grande Instance of Paris, selected for its size and large plexiglass boxes suitable for trials with multiple defendants, the accused are expected to face questioning.

Of the 14 suspects, three defendants – Hayat Boumeddiene, Mohamed Belhoucine and his brother Mehdi Belhoucine – will be absent from the hearing.

Of the three, Boumeddiene – Coulibaly’s partner – is perhaps the most notorious and best known. She was dubbed “France’s most-wanted woman” following the kosher supermarket attack, when investigators issued an arrest warrant and launched a manhunt for the dark-haired woman described as “armed and extremely dangerous”.

Boumeddiene fled to Syria via Turkey days before the January 7, 2015, Charlie Hebdo attack with Mehdi Belhoucine and was probably immediately followed by Mohamed Belhoucine, according to prosecutors.

She then featured in a February 2015 issue of an Islamic State (IS) group magazine, where she confirmed she had entered the “caliphate” – the term used for the territory then controlled by the jihadist group.

Coulibaly declared his allegiance to the IS group in a pre-recorded video published online days after the Paris attacks. Mohamed Belhoucine is considered Coulibaly’s mentor and is believed to have written the attacker’s “oath of allegiance” to the IS group.

The Belhoucine brothers are facing criminal imprisonment although they are believed to have died on the battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq in 2016, according to French intelligence services. Their parents have received messages from IS group fighters notifying them of their sons’ deaths.

While Coulibaly said he was a member of the IS group, the Charlie Hebdo attack was claimed by the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which said the timings of the attacks by Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers was due to their friendship and not the result of joint operations between al Qaeda and the IS group.

‘We will fight relentlessly’

Among the defendants who will be physically present in the Paris courtroom, Ali Riza Polat, 35, a French citizen of Turkish origin, is the most prominent. Investigators say he was Coulibaly's "right-hand man" as well as "a link" between Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers.

Polat is suspected of having played a central role in preparing the attacks, notably by helping to build up the arsenal used by the three perpetrators. Following the January 2015 attacks, he repeatedly tried to leave France for Syria but has been held in custody since March 2015.

Another defendant, Willy Prévost, for his part, admitted to rendering "services" to Coulibaly as an intermediary for the purchase of the vehicle used by the attacker to arrive at Hyper Cacher supermarket. Meanwhile Christophe Raumel is said to have accompanied Prévost on various trips to prepare the attacks without knowing the nature of the "terrorist project", according to investigating judges. He is the only suspect who is not in custody.

The other defendants – Nezar Mickaël Pastor Alwatik, Amar Ramdani, Saïd Makhlouf, Mohamed-Amine Fares, Michel Catino, Abdelaziz Abbad, Miguel Martinez and Metin Karasular – are accused of providing varying degrees of support to the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly.

The charges are punishable by a range of prison sentences including life sentences for complicity in terrorism charges.

Speaking on France Info Monday, prosecutor Ricard dismissed claims that the defendants were just "little helpers" going on trial. "It’s about individuals who are involved in the logistics, the preparation of the events, who provided means of financing, operational material, weapons, a residence,” he said. "All this is essential to the terrorist action."

“The opening of this trial is the moment to remember that the fight against Islamist terrorism is a major priority of the government," Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said Monday in a speech at the French intelligence headquarters. "We will fight relentlessly.”

The hearings are expected to last until November with the opening sessions likely to be an opportunity to pay tribute to the 17 people who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks: Frédéric Boisseau, Franck Brinsolaro, Cabu, Elsa Cayat, Charb, Honoré, Bernard Maris, Ahmed Merabet, Mustapha Ourrad, Michel Renaud, Tignous, Wolinski, Clarissa Jean-Philippe, Philippe Braham, Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab and François-Michel Saada.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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