France is beginning one of its most important terror trials

Six years after an attack that killed 86 people in the southern city of Nice, there is a chance to bring accomplices to justice

People gather around a makeshift memorial to pay tribute to the victims of the attack in Nice. AFP
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Six years after a Tunisian misfit used a hired 19-tonne lorry to mow down men, women and children on the world-renowned Promenade des Anglais in Nice, a Paris trial is about to determine the responsibility of eight of his alleged accomplices.

The driver of the truck, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, is not among the accused. He was shot dead by French police at the end of a horrendous rampage that battered or crushed 86 people to death after a Bastille night fireworks display.

Nor will the court, sitting from Monday, have sight of Brahim Tritrou, one of the eight Tunisians and Albanians alleged to have played differing roles in, or having some knowledge of, the killer’s plans. Generously granted bail, he is said to have fled to his native Tunisia and remains on the run and will be judged in his absence. Another potential defendant, Adriatik Elezi, an Albanian suspected of gunrunning but reportedly sickened by the indirect link with the lorry killings, hanged himself in jail.

Hours after Lahouaiej-Bouhlel turned the sweeping grandeur of the promenade into a battlefield scene, to be in this magnificent city – as I was – was to experience the rawest of emotions.

First, pity. How could any human being not grieve for those poor innocents and for the many hundreds of family and friends bereaved by an act of unimaginable savagery? Or be shocked that not all the bodies had been removed before daylight?

Then, anger. Reporting on one of the saddest events of a career in journalism now spanning rather more than half a century, I felt powerful yet also impotent hatred for Lahouaiej-Bouhlel. ISIS had not already claimed responsibility, and we look to the trial to shed light on his true motivation.

But my venom depended less on why he acted as he did, more on the horrendous consequences. When I found his home, quite early that morning after, neighbours of differing ethnic origins almost queued up to express repugnance for the man and what he had done.

Other emotions, from disbelief to despair, swelled in the heart and mind. What I remember most clearly is the empathy and solidarity I felt with the guiltless Tunisian and wider Maghrebin community of the Cote d’Azur. I already knew Muslims were among the victims; only later did I discover that they accounted for as many as one third of the dead.

If only that striking statistic could be blasted into the faces of France’s far-right Islamophobes.

That day, the words of one man put these thoughts into sharp focus.

My wife had accompanied me to Nice, a city we adore and not much more than two hours by road from where we spend half the year. The mounting death toll had made it inevitable that my reporting should be done from there, not home. She is French and, as I chatted to the killer’s neighbours, caught nuances I might have missed.

Still wishing to be useful, as I sat at a spare table in a friendly Italian restaurant and started to write my articles for this newspaper, she volunteered to walk back to the promenade and then tell me what was happening. I had a lot to write and, given the time lag between France and Abu Dhabi, it was a welcome help.

What she did next will stay with me for the rest of my life. Seeing a TV crew interviewing a Muslim community leader, she marched him back to me.

Ridha Louafi was also Tunisian, had spent much of his life in France and was president of the Cote d’Azur Tunisian Association. I saw him instantly as a man of decency and damaged pride.

“I am ashamed as a Tunisian of this revolting, cowardly and intolerable act of barbarity,” he told me, a haunting sadness in his eyes. “Tunisians and other Maghrebins are among the victims, too, and they are casualties twice over because of the way people will now regard them, as if they were somehow responsible for the terrible actions of one individual.”

He was so right. Whether Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a wife-beating petty criminal with no known links to terrorists, was under ISIS influence, or a deranged lunatic whose murderous outrage they could conveniently claim as theirs, the process began at once.

Interviewed by a French newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, the daughter of a Moroccan woman who was the first person to die that night on the promenade, told harrowing stories.

As a civil party to the trial, Latifa Charrihi, 37, has watched footage of the attack “clearly showing this madman mounting the pavement to target my mother, who was veiled”.

Insult was to add to grief. As the family surrounded her mother’s body where it still lay, a car stopped nearby and one of its young occupants taunted them, implying it was now the turn of Muslims to suffer. And when Ms Charrihi and her veiled sisters laid flowers at the scene, a man called out: “You should be ashamed, walking around like that.”

Her elder sister went to school with the killer’s former wife, who later spoke to her old friend of her contempt for him and his deviations from good Muslim practice. The investigation reveals he drank, took drugs and led a debauched sex life.

Ms Charrihi chooses measured words to reject the false juxtaposition of faith and terror. What happened on July 14, 2016, she says, was “gratuitous wickedness, nothing to do with Islam”.

Those among the 850 individuals and associations registered as civil parties but unable to attend the Paris trial will be able to follow it by video link to a 500-seat Nice conference centre.

From what is known of the defendants’ cases, at least one – accused in connection with weapons supply but not the lorry attack – will say he never even met the killer. Others will insist they were ignorant of his plans.

The proceedings could last until December. Whether they will provide answers to key questions remains to be seen.

What or who turned Lahouaiej-Bouhlel into a mass murder? When and how did his apparent radicalisation begin? Was a second Nice atrocity, an attack on the Christian religious festival of August 15, also planned as some evidence of text message exchanges suggests? Will Ms Charrihi be allowed, when giving victim impact evidence, to express dismay at what she sees as a lack of official support for victims’ families?

In a courtroom specially designed and secured for high-profile terrorist cases, the coming months will present a stiff test to the assertion of the justice minister, Eric Dupond-Moretti, that France “responds to barbarism with the law”.

Published: September 04, 2022, 3:00 PM