Surprises and similarities as Paris attacks suspects reveal their backgrounds

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The past week of the Paris attacks trial has been devoted to an examination of the family backgrounds and personalities of the men accused of involvement in the 2015 massacres which cost 131 people their lives.

There have been surprises.

Salah Abdeslam, who remained silent through six years of imprisonment and his trial in Belgium for the attempted murder of a policeman, who has been aggressive and uncooperative, was suddenly transformed.

Unlike the black-clad unrepentant "soldier of Allah" of the opening of this trial, Abdeslam answered questions politely and seriously. He could not have been nicer.

"He's a total cringing coward," said one civil witness, a man who went to help the injured on the terrace of the Belle Équipe bar.

"He saved his skin by cutting the wires in his suicide vest. Now he's trying to get out of jail."

"He's a clever fellow," according to another civil witness, who says she watches the performances of the accused for those moments when their true personalities show through the carefully constructed exterior.

"But he's still a dangerously unstable individual, as you can see from his flashes of anger."

Early promise betrayed by petty criminality

The stories of the 14 accused are remarkably similar.

Nearly all came from large families with stable, happy backgrounds. Nearly all betrayed early promise by falling into petty crime. Most were heavy smokers of cannabis. All have police records.

There were tales of misfortune.

One man was barely six-years-old when his father died of a mysterious illness. Another saw his career destroyed by a fire in his uninsured home. Another lost his savings and his professional future in a double car crash. Yet another could not come to terms with the death of a brother in the ranks of Islamic State in Syria.

Two of the week's witnesses took the time to express their sympathies with the bereaved families of the victims. The atmosphere has been polite, respectful and dignified.

Even Salah Abdeslam, who was imprisoned for four months in Morocco following a brawl, was obliged to remark that French justice was superior to that exercised on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.

A week of rehabilitation for the accused

The defence lawyers have carefully groomed their clients. This has been a week in which to rehabilitate the accused in the wake of five highly changed weeks of testimony from the families of victims.

There have been tears.

Fahrid Kharkach, the man who admits that he forged documents for some of the attackers, sobbed when he spoke of the death of his father two years ago, while Kharkach was in prison awaiting trial. He cried openly while thanking the anonymous prison officer who shook his hand in sympathy and sat with him for 15 minutes while he came to terms with the news.

There have been problems.

Since the court has decided to defer the question of religious motivation until the examination of the charges against each man, the tribunal president has repeatedly been obliged to interrupt questioning with the warning that the court is getting into forbidden territory. Even the élite lawyers representing the French state have been reprimanded.

Already showing the strain

And there have been signs of fatigue.

On Friday afternoon, the normally imperturbable tribunal president, Jean-Louis Périès removed his glasses, covered his face and sat silently for a few moments, in the midst of a violent verbal row on the admissibility of certain evidence. He could have been praying.

Rubbing his eyes, gathering his strength, the veteran criminal judge quickly resumed his quiet authority.

"The evidence can not be heard at this stage," he calmly explained. "Because it bears on the charges against the accused. Only their personal backgrounds are currently under consideration."

In those few moments of absent silence, however, we briefly glimpsed the 65-year-old man who has steered this legal epic through the long days of eight emotion-filled weeks, and who faces a further 132 weeks of evidence before he can withdraw with his four co-assessors to decide the fate of the accused.

Those of us who can slip out for a break, or skip a day when it all gets too much, are already feeling the strain. Périès gets no time off.

The trial continues, with the period between now and Christmas allocated to the hearing of the police investigators who pieced together the cases against each of the accused.

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