Nice terror attack trial opens to empty seats and forlorn hopes

·3-min read
AP - Daniel Cole

The first week of the trial of eight people accused in connection with the Bastille Day massacre in the southern French city of Nice in 2016 has been marked by absences. The perpetrator was shot dead by security forces at the scene of the crime. The families of many victims have refused to make the 700km trip to the Paris courtroom.

On the evening of 14 July 2016, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel deliberately drove a truck into the crowds watching the Bastille Day fireworks display on the Promenade des Anglais in the southern French city of Nice.

He killed 86 people and injured hundreds before security forces shot him dead at the wheel of the vehicle.

Two days after the massacre, the Islamic State terror outfit claimed responsibility for the murders, saying Bouhlel had "acted as a soldier of the caliphat".

But he left no testament, nor any personal message associating his action with the IS crusade, as was the case, for example, with the perpetrators who died in the Paris attacks in November 2015.

Investigators were unable to establish any links between the attacker and the jihadist organisation which at the time controlled swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Bouhlel was clealry a psychologically disturbed individual.

His wife had reported him to the police on several occasions for extreme conjugal mistreatment. She told investigators that he was "deranged, a sexual obsessive who loved violence."

Far from being a practicing Muslim, she said, "he ate pork, he drank alcohol, he did not observe Ramadan. He believed nothing.

"Once, when he discovered that I was praying because our daughter was sick, he urinated all over me.

"He was a monster."

Eight accused accomplices

That monster is not on trial.

The eight accused are alleged accomplices who face charges of failure to denounce the attack, of supplying weapons, or otherwise aiding and abetting a criminal act.

Only three face terrorism charges. The others are being tried as common crinimals.

If found guilty, they face prison sentences ranging from five to 20 years.

Use of video evidence

The unspeakable progress of the truck driven by Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was filmed by the batteries of police security cameras which line the Nice seafront.

The court this week debated whether the showing of those video images would be appropriate or not. Some families have said they are in favour, others are absolutely opposed.

Precedents for both positions have been established by recent French cases. In the Charlie Hebdo trial, images of the crime scene were shown in court, to the consternation of some of those present.

Jean-Louis Périès, the presiding judge in the November 2015 trial, took a very cautions line, allowing the display of only a handful of photographs taken by police technical staff at the Bataclan concert hall where 90 people died.

The president of the Nice tribunal, Laurent Raviot, says he will base his decision on the usefulness of the images in the establishment of the truth and the guilt or innocence of the accused.

He will also need to be sure that the video evidence will help the bereaved and surviving victims to recover from their trauma.

Conflict of interest

Much of the first week of this hearing was taken up with the establishment of a definitive list of the so-called parties civiles, the civil plaintiffs, direct and indirect victims of the attack, who are entitled to compensation and also, if they wish, to address the court.

There were 30,000 people on the Nice seafront on the fatal night. Several hundred have already registered as civil plaintifs; the court president has called for restraint in the selection of those who will actually speak.

Six harrowing weeks of the November 2015 trial were devoted to hearing the evidence of the parties civiles. Those who spoke said the exercise had been helpful; many silent victims remarked that they had learned important details about the last moments of lost loved ones.

To what extent the exercise of justice as reparation for the victims is in conflict with the right to a fair trial for the accused remains to be decided.