Advertisement

Four men go on trial over Strasbourg terror attack in 2018

<span>People lighting candles at the Christmas market in Strasbourg days after the terror attack. </span><span>Photograph: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images</span>
People lighting candles at the Christmas market in Strasbourg days after the terror attack. Photograph: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

Four men go on trial today accused of involvement in the 2018 terrorist attack on Strasbourg’s Christmas market, in which a gunman killed five people and injured 11 others in an assault that was later claimed by Islamic State.

Chérif Chekatt, 29, who was born and raised in the city, opened fire with a 19th-century revolver on 11 December in the historic centre.

Over the course of 10 minutes, Chekatt attacked passersby with a gun and knife at three different locations in the shadow of the city’s cathedral, where the Christmas market attracts millions of visitors each year.

Chekatt, who had a long criminal record with more than 20 convictions for theft and violence, had spent several spells in jail and was on a watchlist of radicalised former prisoners.

After the attack, he hailed a taxi to the south of the city. After a 48-hour manhunt, he was killed in a shootout with police.

Four French men, aged between 34 and 43, will go on trial in Paris. Three – Stéphane Bodein, Frédéric Bodein and Christian Hoffmann – are accused of involvement by helping to procure weapons.

Only one of the defendants, Audrey Mondjehi-Kpanhoue, 43, a former cellmate of Chekatt, is facing terrorism charges and could face life in prison. He is accused of playing a key role in finding a gun and being aware of and sharing Chekatt’s radical convictions. His lawyer said he must not be convicted simply because Chekatt is no longer here to answer for the attacks.

A fifth man, aged 84, will not appear for health reasons, and is likely to be tried separately at a later date.

The trial will hear accounts of survivors and the families of those killed, including a father who had fled Afghanistan and was visiting the market with his children, as well as a Thai tourist. Dozens of survivors were left with life-changing injuries and psychological trauma.

One survivor, now working as a teacher in Paris, said how the attack changed her life forever after two of her friends were shot in front of her.

The woman in her 30s, who asked not to be named, described how she had just handed in her PhD thesis and was working as a student journalist on a radio station at the European parliament in Strasbourg.

She was being hosted in the city by her colleague, Bartosz Piotr Orent-Niedezelski, known as Bartek, a young French-Polish broadcaster at the European parliament. With them was Antonio Megalizzi, 28, an Italian journalist working on the same European parliament project, as well as another female student journalist.

She said: “We’d been working since the early morning and Bartek said: ‘Let’s go to the Christmas market. It’s so beautiful, you’ll see’. We took the tram to the city centre, passed the bag checks, where our bags were searched, and toured the market stands looking for presents for our boyfriends and girlfriends back home.”

The four took a selfie in front of the Christmas tree in the central square.

The woman said they were walking along a narrow street “when I stopped to look in the window of a pharmacy decorated with teddy bears, my female friend stopped too”.

The two men kept walking and were one metre ahead. She said: “At that moment I saw the attacker standing with his back to a wall, he lifted his arm, he had a gun and he opened fire. I saw the men fall to the ground.”

She said she couldn’t feel her body, which was totally numb, but she ran, and later dragged her female friend who was frozen to the spot. She described the confusion of running into a restaurant to hide.

Orent-Niedezelski and Megalizzi died days later in hospital.

“They were kind, always smiling, two of life’s enthusiasts,” she said. “My world collapsed because of the injustice that set in, the guilt: why did I stop and look in that window?”

She said: “Having seen terrorism with my eyes, I can say it’s hideous. It’s the most violent thing I have ever seen in my life, witnessing two people lose their life in front of me because a young person their own age, who was born and grew up in France, shoots them in the street. How did we get here? I want to speak against hatred and division, against all that separates us, and in support of living together and respecting others.”

She said: “After the attack, I always felt very alone. I was angry with the people around me for not understanding. I realise now that they can’t fully understand, and that brings a great solitude.”

Paul Latouche, a lawyer for several survivors, said: “The trial is a fundamental step in the grieving process and reconstruction. Strasbourg is a European capital and the stakes of this trial go beyond the borders of France.”