Three days to explain why a man deserves life in prison

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The November 2015 Paris attacks trial took another crucial step towards judgement on Wednesday with the beginning of the final presentation of the case by the prosecution. On Friday, the three co-prosecutors will demand the sentences they believe each of the accused deserves.

"This is where we put the pieces of the puzzle together. We are motivated by impartiality and objectivity." With those words, senior state prosecutor Camille Hennetier launched the latest phase of the Paris terror trial.

Hennetier makes it sound straightforward. But this puzzle has more than one million pieces of evidence. And many of them can be turned in different directions, even given different significance, depending on whose turn it is to handle them. Impartiality is a question of point of view.

The rest of this week will be taken up with the presentation of the prosecution's version of events as established during the nine-month examination of five years of police investigation in Belgium, France and Austria.

"If we have not managed to disclose the truth," said Camille Hennetier, "we can at least offer judicial truth. That will not satisfy the victims, the bereaved. But that is the problem with justice, which tries to rationalise the irrational. It won't help us to understand evil, barbarity or terror."

On Friday afternoon, when Camille Hennetier and her two fellow anti-terrorist magistrates have completed their version of the Paris attacks puzzle, they will call on the tribunal judges to sentence those whose guilt they have worked to establish.

Some of the accused will die in jail

The accused men risk punishments including life imprisonment.

"Life" In French law can mean a period of anything between 18 and 30 years in jail.

But the courts are entitled to impose a real, incompressible life sentence, notably for terrorist crimes. If found guilty, the surviving Paris attacker, Salah Abdeslam, now 33 years old, could spend the rest of his days in jail. Literally.

We're not there yet.

First, we have to be reminded of the details. And the object of this objective telling by those who orchestrated the investigation, and put together the 450 volumes of evidence, is to convince the tribunal that the 20 accused are guilty as charged and deserve to suffer the penalties laid down by law.

"We have based our case exclusively on those elements which can be solidly supported," Camille Hennetier explained with the solemn dignity that has been her signature since the start of these hearings.

"We insist on the fact that those who participated in the terrorist enterprise in any way are co-authors of the criminal outcome.

"Complicity is punishable by law, even if the accomplice is not aware of the nature and scale of the crime projected.

"The acts leading to a crime can not be divided into the categories of 'significant' and 'insignificant'. Action is indivisible!"

'Eradicate the rabid dogs of disbelief!'

Co-prosecutor Nicolas Braconnay then took up the narrative with a view to summarising the indivisible actions that led to the tragedy of 13 November 2015, and the loss of 132 lives.

It's a long story. And Braconnay chose a strange way of telling it, with diversions, parentheses and asides, leaving more than one hearer in the packed courtroom wondering where, exactly, we were.

Braconnay explained the importance of the Islamist ideology of violent jihad as the factor linking the 33 members of the Brussels group, the terrorists who were responsible, not only for the Paris killings, but also for the 2016 airport and metro attacks in Belgium, and the 2015 attempt to murder passengers on board the Thalys high-speed train.

He said they shared a rigid mental state, Hannah Arendt's "logic of the idea", which made extreme violence acceptable because the idea bypassed normal thought processes, excluding all contradictions and controls.

Nicolas Braconnay began his telling in September 2013, with the departure of Ousama Atar for Damascus, ostensibly to learn Arabic, but in fact to fight against US soldiers in Iraq. Atar is one of the absent accused. He is believed to have died in a coalition air attack in Syria in 2016.

He is also believed to have masterminded the formation of the Brussels terrorist group, and to have directed their attacks from Syria. His stated aim was "the eradication of the rabid dogs of disbelief".

'Family links do not make you guilty'

Ousama Atar's younger brother is among the accused at this trial.

"He is not being tried for his family relationships," Nicolas Braconnay assured the court, referring to Yassine Atar's brother and to his cousins, the Bakraoui brothers, coordinators of the 2016 Belgian attacks in which the two men died in suicide explosions.

The litany of links and names continued . . . Mohammed Bakkali, another of the Paris accused, described as "a third brother" to the Bakraouis; Ali Al Hadad Asufi, friend of Salah Abdeslam since childhood.

Nicolas Braconnay insisted on the strategic and propaganda importance of the Brussels group for Islamic State, and on the need to co-opt men who could be depended upon. Those who had been to the warzone in Syria were solid; the others were chosen from a network of long-term friendships and family. They all knew what they were getting into, insisted the state prosecutor.

The murderous legacy of Molenbeek

After a brief suspension, the story was taken up by the third co-prosecutor, Nicolas Le Bris.

His style is laborious but linear, so at least you know where he's going, even if you generally get there before him.

He spoke of the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek as a village in which conservative Muslim values have been significant since the arrival of the first wave of Moroccan migrant workers in the late 1940s.

This was the breeding ground of a fundamentalist movement, and home to many of the Brussels group, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, "the bloody face of Islamic State terrorism," one of the Paris killers and the operational commander of the November 2015 attacks.

Abaaoud's grisly career in Syria, his status as an IS propaganda figure, and his influence on other key members of the terrorist group were patiently retold.

The Abdeslam brothers, Mohammed Abrini, Ahmed Dhamani were all early recruits to the cause of extremist violence, said Nicolas Le Bris. All had criminal backgrounds; some showed clear signs of religious radicalisation.

And so it continued, each claim and counterclaim made by the accused over the past nine months put in the context of a story in which each man is guilty of some level of participation in what each knew to be a terrorist enterprise.

Le Bris has the cold, relentless pace of a glacier. He is not quick, but he is terribly efficient.

When, approaching 20h00, prosecutor Nicolas Le Bris asked the court president if it would suit him to stop for the day and pick up the story on Thursday, Jean-Louis Périès replied with a benign smile and to general relief, "that would suit me very well indeed!"

The trial continues.

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