Paris Bataclan attack: hunt for the truth culminates as France's biggest terror trial ends

Prosecutors seeking life imprisonment without parole for sole survivor of ISIS cell which killed 130 people in Paris

In this court-sketch Salah Abdeslam stands on the first day of the trial taking place at the Palais de Justice of Paris. AFP
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"I know that there is still hate ... I ask you to hate me with moderation."

Those were the pleading words of Salah Abdeslam in the nine-month trial stemming from France's worst ever terrorist attacks — the assault on Bataclan concert hall and other targets in the French capital that killed 130 people in 2015.

Had a man who began the trial dressed in black and defiantly giving his profession as an "Islamic State fighter" been affected by months of heart-rending evidence?

Or was the sole survivor of the ISIS group that carried out the attacks trying to save his skin, having told the court of his suffering in solitary confinement and fearing a lifetime behind bars?

The trial of suspects in the attack is due to come to an end on Wednesday when judges hand in their verdict after a difficult and prolonged search for truth. Thirteen others, 10 of whom are already in jail, are accused of crimes ranging from helping to provide the attackers with weapons or cars to planning to take part in the attack. Six more were judged in absentia.

Ordeal for survivors

The verdicts will bring to an end months of harrowing hearings at France's biggest terror trial.

In the deadliest attack ever seen in peacetime France, extremist gunmen struck the Bataclan, six bars and restaurants and the perimeter of the Stade de France sports stadium on the evening of November 13, 2015.

The hearings allowed victims to testify in detail about their ordeal and their struggles in overcoming it, while families of those killed spoke of how hard it was to move on. Some of the accused apologised or took responsibility for their role in the attacks.

Abdeslam, whose brother was a member of the group and was killed on the spot during the attack, faces possible life imprisonment without parole.

"It has been a long 10 months but I think we can be proud of what we achieved," said Arthur Denouveaux, a survivor of the Bataclan attack, in which 90 people died, and the president of Life for Paris, a victims' association.

"Victims, myself included, we had very low expectations for the trial," he told Reuters. "The trial overcame anything we would have wished for, because terrorists spoke, terrorists in a way answered to our testimonies — that was so unexpected, that never happens in terrorist trials."

Many survivors thought taking part would help them to heal psychologically. Others felt a deep desire for justice to be served, even though most of the attackers were dead.

And many more hoped for clarity: why had 10 young men from Muslim backgrounds, most of them born in Europe, slaughtered so many people as they enjoyed themselves on a Friday night?

"We come here because we're trying to understand things which are completely irrational," a widow of a victim, who asked not to be named, told AFP as she headed into court in October.

She also hoped to meet people "who saw my husband just before he died", she said, her voice catching in her throat.

For some, the desire for explanations seemed in vain.

Abdeslam "thinks he's a star, he teases us, keeps quiet, enjoys the reactions he provokes," one of the prosecution lawyers, Nicolas Le Bris, said angrily in late March.

Attacker breaks his silence

The trial opened on September 8 and has been held in the specially built courtroom in central Paris — an airy wood-framed construction, with chairs and benches for 550 people.

The moment hundreds of victims were hoping for came late in proceedings.

"I'm going to explain myself because it's the last time that I'll have the opportunity to do so," said Abdeslam.

Spoken in the defendants' glass box in April, the words sent tremors through the courtroom where victims and their families had been ever-present during the hearings.

"All these people in here need my responses. I can't promise anything but I'll do my best," said the 32-year-old, who had refused to co-operate during his six years behind bars.

The Belgium-born son of Moroccan immigrants recounted what he said was his role in the attacks that sent shock waves through France and Europe.

During a meeting in Belgium, where the ISIS cell was based, he had been asked to take part in the attacks two days beforehand by the ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a long-time friend.

During the assault, which was co-ordinated from Syria, Abdeslam's role was to blow himself up in a cafe in a fashionable area of the 18th district of northern Paris.

Before this, he would drive three suicide bombers to the Stade de France where France were playing Germany in a football match attended by then-president Francois Hollande.

But when he arrived in the bar, he had a change of heart, Abdeslam claimed.

"I go into the cafe, I order a drink, I look at the people around me and I say to myself 'no, I'm not going to do it'," he told the court.

A few kilometres to the south-east, his older brother Brahim embraced his mission, gunning down young people in cafes before blowing himself up.

A third group ran into the Bataclan during an Eagles of Death Metal concert, shooting indiscriminately. Ninety people died at the venue.

After his alleged change of heart, Abdeslam said he travelled to the south of Paris before calling some friends in Brussels to come to pick him up.

He went on the run for four months before being found by Belgian police in his home neighbourhood of Molenbeek in the Belgian capital, living near his family.

The apparent breakthrough moment in court raised as many questions as it answered — and Abdeslam refused or evaded follow-ups.

Prosecutors had detailed how his suicide belt, later found by police, had in fact been defective.

This was a more likely explanation of why he had not detonated, they said.

He had booked cars and rooms for fellow attackers in his own name in Paris, a lack of precaution suggesting he did not intend to survive.

And in handwritten letters found afterwards, including to his sister, he justified the attacks on "sinners" and regretted that he had not ended up among the "martyrs".

When asked in court, he would not give the name of the bar he visited, or explain why he had acted alone while the other attackers were in threes.

"I changed my mind out of humanity, not out of fear," he insisted.

"A fairy tale," the head of a victims' association called it afterwards.

Two days later, a weeping Abdesalam presented his "condolences and apologies" in court.

France's biggest terror trial

The trial has been unprecedented for France in scale and complexity.

The investigation took six years and its written conclusions stretch to 53 metres when lined up.

The time given over to victims' evidence also sets the trial apart, lending it at times the sense of a mass therapy session.

"I needed to feel the Bataclan, hear the bullets, the smell," bereaved father Stephane said after witness statements in October.

He had been able to imagine what his son Hugo "felt that evening", he said.

The filming of proceedings for the National Archives — recordings in French courts are usually banned — means the trial will serve as a historical resource.

"When you take part you hear about everyone else's stories, what they suffered, what they lost," David Fritz Goeppinger, a hostage in the Bataclan, told AFP recently.

In their concluding arguments, prosecutors condemned Abdesalam's display of emotion in court as a cynical ploy to encourage leniency from the five magistrates who will decide his fate.

By taking part in the operation he had "the blood of all the victims on his hands", they said.

"All of those you are judging accepted to take part in a terrorist group, either by conviction, cowardliness or greed,” prosecutor Nicolas Braconnay told the court.

Claims that France was targeted because of its role in the multinational coalition against ISIS — as some of those accused had contended — were “an alibi”, Mr Braconnay said.

Though Abdeslam's guilt as a participant is not in doubt, the five judges will have to decide whether to agree to prosecutors' demands for a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Much will hinge on whether they believe the one-time drug dealer who never once condemned ISIS atrocities is capable of remorse and poses a threat for the rest of his days.

Abdeslam pleaded for leniency during his final appearance in court on Monday, acknowledging he had “made mistakes” but declaring: “I’m not a murderer.”

Another key accused, Mohammed Abrini, accompanied the group to Paris the night before the attacks then returned to Belgium. He was arrested months later in Brussels. Prosecutors want a life sentence for him as well.

Mr Denouveaux said that after eight gruelling months people were now fed up.

"I'm not that interested in the verdicts in themselves," he said. "It's really about saying 'that's it, it's behind us'.

"I feel relieved that the trial is over because it means justice has done what it has to do and because it means this trial is behind me and I can move on with my life."

Updated: June 30, 2022, 10:26 AM