The 31-year-old Tunisian delivery driver who ploughed a heavy truck into a crowd gathered to watch fireworks on the Nice seafront on Bastille day 2016, killing 86 people and injuring more than 400, would not have been able to commit the atrocity without the “precious help” of three friends, the court has heard.
After weeks of harrowing evidence from the bereaved and survivors of the second-most deadly massacre in peacetime France, who described the screams, bloodshed and sound of bones breaking, lawyers for the families began their summing up on Wednesday.
The lawyer Catherine Szwarc said the truck attack was not an opportunistic gesture, but planned terrorism. She said “each little act” of assistance was crucial by the three men who are on trial for helping the truck’s driver, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel. They face charges of participation in a terrorist criminal association to help the attacker obtain weapons and the truck.
Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was shot dead by police on the night of the attack as he began firing a semi-automatic weapon from the truck’s cab at the end of his four-minute drive zig-zagging into the crowd.
The lawyer Fabien Rajon said: “Thousands of families were destroyed for ever, it killed more children than any other attack in Europe. It created carnage on a night when parents had taken their children out to see fireworks; their only weapons were shorts and T-shirts, and pushchairs. They didn’t expect a war scene with bodies torn apart.”
In contrast to most other terrorist cases in France, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel left very clear pointers to potential accomplices. Six minutes before he began the truck attack, he sent a text message to an acquaintance, Ramzi Arefa, who had dealt him cannabis and cocaine and procured a gun, saying the weapon was great and he wanted five more for “Chokri and his friends”. This implicated another friend, Chokri Chafroud, a fellow Tunisian who had been struggling to find work and housing.
Szwarc told the court that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had printed out photos of himself with two friends, Chafroud and a Nice hotel night watchman, Mohamed Ghraieb, leaving them at his home with a list of phone numbers and addresses, clearly implicating them.
All have denied knowledge of or involvement in the truck attack and implied he tried to set them up. Two were photographed with him in the truck days before, but said they thought it was a truck from his workplace.
One other man is being tried in absentia, and four Albanian defendants, who never met the attacker, are facing lesser charges of gun-trafficking.
The court heard how Lahouaiej-Bouhel was a bodybuilding fan and an amateur salsa dancer who had charmed older women in their 70s and 80s at his dancing club.
He had a brutal upbringing in southern Tunisia before moving to France with his young wife, whom he subjected to daily domestic violence. She twice filed complaints to police – telling officers in 2014 he had urinated on her, deliberately defecated in their bedroom and stabbed one of their children’s teddies, saying he would “not stop there”.
After failing to reply to police summons, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was finally questioned by police over the domestic violence two years after his wife’s 2014 complaint. The questioning took place three weeks before he committed the Nice atrocity. He was not taken into custody over the domestic violence. The head judge at the Nice attack trial described the police’s attitude to the domestic violence allegations as “cavalier”.
Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had begun taking a superficial interest in Islam in the weeks before the Nice attack, and had visited jihadist websites. Islamic State would later claim responsibility for his attack, but waited two days to do so, offering no proof that the attacker had had direct contact with the group.
Chafroud was asked in court about messages he sent Lahouaiej-Bouhlel talking about filling a truck with “2,000 tonnes of iron, cutting the breaks and I’ll watch”. Chafroud told the court it was a joke and that he had been traumatised as a child when a friend was run over by a truck in front of him.
Arefa, who was 21 at the time of the attack, had sold Lahouaiej-Bouhlel cannabis and cocaine, and found him a weapon via an Albanian drug contact. Asked by the judge what he thought the gun would be used for, Arefa said: “It might shock you but I never asked myself the question.” He denied any knowledge of or link to terrorism.
Ghraieb denied any knowledge of the attack or terrorism. Asked why he had walked along the promenade after the attack to observe the aftermath, he said it was on his way home.
The trial continues until 13 December.