Paris terror trial prepares for final plunge into dark night of the bereaved

·4-min read

The end of this extraordinary judicial process is now in sight. After eight months of evidence, explanation and questions, the court trying 14 men suspected of various levels of complicity in the November 2015 attacks will now listen to the testimony of the hurt, the bereaved and the psychologically damaged.

The victims have been given a special place at this trial.

Last autumn, the court allocated five emotionally charged weeks to the hearing of testimony from the injured and the bereaved.

The court president, Jean-Louis Périès, allowed each witness to take the time required. Périès was patient, concerned and benevolent.

No one was reprimanded for repetition or digression. This veteran magistrate is unforgiving of his professional colleagues and will not hesitate to end the rhetorical flights of any lawyer lost in the admiration of his own verbiage.

But the victims are different.

An important part of what is being attempted at this trial, in addition to the administration of justice, is the exposure of the trauma of those who survived the worst peacetime attack on civilians in France.

The hope is that some among them will find closure and bring the past six years of hurt to some point of balance so that life can resume in the shadow of the tragedy.

Impact on the accused

The testimony of the victims has also had an impact on some of the accused.

Several among them, notably Salah Abdeslam, the sole survivor of the three squads of killers, have spoken of the force of simple sadness on their perception of the Islamic State "project" to strike civilian targets in France in revenge for international coalition airstrikes against IS fighters in Syria and Iraq.

Abdeslam apologised to the victims at the end of his trial testimony two weeks ago.

The comments marked a dramatic end to three days of evidence from a man who, in the initial stages of the trial, maintained a rigid silence apart from occasional outbursts against the court.

The attackers killed 130 people in suicide bombings and shootings at the Stade de France stadium, the Bataclan concert hall and on street terraces of bars and restaurants on 13 November 2015.

One further victim has been recognised by the court, following his suicide while being treated for depression.

"I wish to express my condolences and offer an apology to all the victims," Abdeslam told the court in a sometimes tearful statement.

"I know that hatred remains ... I ask you to forgive me."

Abdeslam, the main trial suspect after the other jihadists were killed during or in the wake of the attacks, has said he had planned to blow himself up in a crowded bar but changed his mind after seeing the people whom he was about to kill.

If convicted, he faces life in prison.

'I'm glad I didn't kill those people'

One of his defence lawyers, Olivia Ronen, asked Abdeslam during cross-examination if he regretted not carrying out his plan.

"I don't regret it. I didn't kill these people and I didn't die," he replied.

Addressing the wounded and those who lost loved ones: "I know this is not going to heal you.

"But if it can do you any good, if I could do any good for one of the victims, then for me that would be a victory."

Victims and the loved ones of those who died cautiously welcomed Abdeslam's statement, saying it needed further reflection.

'An exercise in style'

"It's a surprise," said a visibly shaken Georges Salines, whose daughter was killed at the Bataclan. "It's important that he asks for forgiveness. We will go and reflect."

Cédric, who survived the attacks and did not give his last name, said he thought Abdeslam was sincere while adding he found his character paradoxical.

But Gerard Chemla, a lawyer representing some 100 victims, denounced what he said was a carefully constructed statement where Abdeslam cried for himself and his friends but not the victims.

"Everyone has their own interpretation of this testimony and their analysis of these tears. But neither my clients nor I were moved by this exercise in style," he said.

Earlier in the day, a lawyer for the civil parties asked Abdeslam how he wanted to be remembered.

"I don't want people to remember me," Abdeslam replied. "I want to be forgotten forever,"

New witnesses come forward

The five weeks of evidence from victims and the bereaved last autumn did not permit the hearing of all those who wished to testify.

And new volunteers have come forward in the course of the trial, determined to record their suffering, their loss, for history.

So we will start again when the hearings resume after a week-long break next Tuesday.

The deaths of 131 people, and the injuries of hundreds of others, make a long story. It must be told.

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