The terrorism trial of 14 people linked to the January 2015 Paris attacks on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket ends Wednesday after three months punctuated by new attacks, a wave of coronavirus infections among the defendants, and devastating testimony bearing witness to three days of bloodshed that shook France.
Three of the 14 fled to Syria just ahead of the Jan. 7-9, 2015 attacks in Paris, which left 17 dead along with the three gunmen — who claimed the killings in the name of al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. The other 11, all men, formed a circle of friends and prison acquaintances who claimed any facilitating they may have done was unwitting or for more run-of-the mill crime like armed robbery: weapons stashed in a zipped duffel that few would admit to opening, vehicles, communications, and a short-term rental apartment scouted as a hideout.
One gambled day and night during the three-day period, learning what happened only after emerging blearily from the casino. Another was a pot-smoking ambulance driver. A third was a childhood friend of the market attacker, who got beaten to a pulp by the latter after going into debt.
It was the coronavirus infection of Ali Riza Polat, described as the lieutenant of the virulently anti-Semitic market attacker, Amédy Coulibaly, that forced the suspension of the trial for a month. Polat, whose profane outbursts and insults drew rebukes from the chief judge, is the only defendant present to face a life term. A handwriting expert testified it was Polat who scrawled a list of arms and munitions — along with their prices — which was linked to the attack.
The minimum sentence requested by prosecutors is five years, for a suspect who went along to shop for weapons and a car, and watched as his friend removed the GPS tracker from a motorcycle but asked no questions.
In all, investigators sifted through 37 million bits of phone data, according to video testimony by judicial police. Among the men cuffed behind the courtroom’s enclosed stands, flanked by masked and armed officers, were several who had exchanged texts or calls with Coulibaly in the days leading up to the attack. They describe any contacts as the normal communications among acquaintances.
Among those testifying were the widows of Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the brothers who stormed Charlie Hebdo’s offices on Jan. 7, 2015, decimating the newspaper’s editorial staff in what they said was an act of vengeance for its publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad years before. Charlie Hebdo’s offices had been firebombed before and were unmarked, and its editors had round-the-clock protection. But it wasn’t enough.
In all, 12 people died in that attack. The first was Frédéric Boisseau, who worked in maintenance. Then, the Kouachis seized Corinne Rey, a cartoonist who had gone down to smoke, and forced her upstairs to punch in the door code. She watched in horror as they opened fire on the editorial meeting. For years, she harbored paralyzing guilt that her life was spared while so many others died.
“I was not killed, but what happened to me was absolutely chilling and I will live with it until my life is over,” she testified. “It took me some time to understand it, but I’m not the guilty one in this. The only guilty ones are the Kouachis and their accomplices.”
The next day, Coulibaly shot and killed a young policewoman after failing to attack a Jewish community center in the suburb of Montrouge. By then, the Kouachis were on the run and France was paralyzed with fear.
Authorities didn’t link the shooting to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo immediately. They were closing in on the fugitive brothers when the first alerts came of a gunman inside a kosher supermarket. It was a wintry Friday afternoon, and customers were rushing to finish their shopping before the Sabbath when Coulibaly entered, carrying an assault rifle, pistols and explosives. With a GoPro camera fixed to his torso, he methodically fired on an employee and a customer, then killed a second customer before ordering a cashier to close the store’s metal blinds, images shown to a hushed courtroom.
The first victim, Yohan Cohen, lay dying on the ground and Coulibaly turned to some 20 hostages in the room and asked if he should “finish him off.” Despite the pleas to leave him alone, Coulibaly fired a killing shot, according to testimony from cashier Zarie Sibony.
“You are Jews and French, the two things I hate the most,” he told them.
Some 40 kilometers (25 miles) away, the Kouachi brothers were cornered in a printing shop with their own hostages. Ultimately, all three attackers died in near-simultaneous police raids. It was the first attack in Europe claimed by the Islamic State group, which struck Paris again later that year to even deadlier effect.
At the heart of the trial is who helped them and how. Prosecutors said the Kouachis essentially self-financed their attack, while Coulibaly and his wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, took out fraudulent loans. Boumeddiene, the only woman on trial, fled to Syria days before the attack with two other absent defendants, Mohamed et Mehdi Belhoucine. The brothers are believed to be dead, while Boumeddiene is thought to be alive, somewhere between Syria and Turkey.
One witness, the French widow of an Islamic State emir, testified from prison that she’d run across Boumeddiene late last year at a camp in Syria. The French government wants to take no chances of any of the three returning without facing justice. Free after a brief prison term, for reasons both defense attorneys and victims described as baffling, was the far-right sympathizer turned police informant who actually sold the weapons to Coulibaly.
Three weeks into the trial, on Sept. 25, a Pakistani man steeped in radical Islam and armed with a butcher’s knife attacked two people outside the former Charlie Hebdo offices on Nicolas-Appert street long since vacated by the publication. Murmurs rippled through the courtroom as the first alerts flashed, but the trial continued.
Six weeks into the trial, on Oct. 16, a French schoolteacher who opened a debate on free speech by showing students the Muhammad caricatures was beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee, sending France yet again into mourning.
Eight weeks into the trial, on Oct. 30, a young Tunisian armed with a knife and carrying a copy of the Quran attacked worshippers in a church in the southern city of Nice, killing three. He had a photo of the Chechen on his phone and an audio message describing France as a “country of unbelievers.”
Just two days later, three defendants came down with coronavirus and the trial was suspended.
“After having wished so long that this trial would come to an end, we all felt how difficult it would be to be finished with it,” Charlie Hebdo’s Yanick Haenel wrote for the 54th day of testimony, published Tuesday.
As he left the courthouse, he wrote, “I again saw the images of the massacres at Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher and Montrouge, then the faces of the accused seeking out our gaze across the stand: Two intolerable visions.
“We looked for the relationship between these two visions, but did we find it? We were waiting for the truth, and we have misfortune for everyone: Victims, families, accused.”