Trial to begin of accused Charlie Hebdo attack accomplices
Fourteen people are accused of helping killers, who killed nine journalists and cartoonists, caretaker and two police officers
More than five years after attacks on the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket launched an ugly new wave of terrorism in France, the trial begins on Wednesday of 14 people accused of helping the killers.
Only 11 of the defendants can be present for hearings, to be held at the new criminal court in Porte de Clichy, on the outskirts of the French capital.
Three others fled to Syria shortly before the attacks. Two are presumed to have died there while fighting alongside ISIS but can still be tried because their deaths are unconfirmed.
The grim events that unfolded between January 7 and 9, 2015, shocked the world and intensified debate about blasphemy and the limits of freedom of expression.
They were followed over the next 18 months by a series of outrages in France, including the Paris massacre on November 13, 2015, that killed 131 people and a lorry attack in which 86 died on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice in July 2016.
The principal characters in the interlinked dramas of those three January days in 2015 – the killers – will also be absent from the trial.
Said and Cherif Kouachi, the French-Algerian brothers who shot and killed 12 at the Charlie Hebdo offices, died two days later in a siege at a sign-making company’s premises 40 kilometres away in Dammartin-en-Goele.
Both had aligned themselves with Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula and claimed their motive was to destroy Charlie Hebdo for its publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.
Cherif Kouachi, 32, told a French TV journalist while still besieged that it was an act of vengeance. “We do not kill women … we have an honour code in Islam,” he claimed, also suggesting that he and his brother, 34, did not kill civilians.
But the only non-civilians killed were two police officers. One was a Muslim, Ahmed Merabet, 42, mercilessly finished off as he lay wounded on the pavement.
The nine murdered journalists and cartoonists included a woman, Elsa Cayat, 54, a psychoanalyst and columnist.
During the siege, the Kouachis’ accomplice Amedy Coulibaly, 32, who had met Cherif Kouachi in prison and become friendly with both brothers, seized hostages in the Hyper Cacher Kosher supermarket in Vincennes, eastern Paris.
He murdered four Jewish people and seriously wounded four others before he, too, was shot dead by police.
On the day before, with France still coming to terms with the Charlie Hebdo killings, Coulibaly shot a Martinique-born auxiliary policewoman, Clarissa Jean-Philippe, 26, in the back as she dealt with a traffic accident at Montrouge, in the southern suburbs of the capital.
Sometimes referred to as the forgotten victim of this short but ferocious outbreak of terrorism in and around Paris, she also died. She was due to be confirmed in her post four days later.
One theory before the court will be that Coulibaly, who declared allegiance to ISIS, may have been planning to attack Jewish children at a nearby school adjacent to a synagogue.
If true, this suggests he was inspired by Mohamed Merah, a self-styled Al Qaeda serial killer whose seven victims included three Jewish children at their school in Toulouse, south-western France, in 2012.
The Charlie Hebdo trial will be filmed for historical and judicial archives, an exceptional step previously taken for the 1987 trial of Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon” convicted of crimes against humanity while serving as the Gestapo chief in the French city during the wartime Vichy regime.
The absent defendants include Coulibaly’s partner, Hayat Boumedienne, 32, who he married in a religious ceremony not recognised in French law.
Once described as the world’s most wanted female terrorist suspect, she is alleged to have played a major role in planning his attacks, raising the necessary funds through car fraud.
Pregnant by Coulibaly, she left France, travelling to Syria through Spain and Turkey, days before the attacks.
She was reportedly killed in Syria but a woman returning from the conflict later claimed she was alive and that they had been detained together at a camp for ISIS prisoners in Al Hol, near the Syrian border with Iraq.
She said Boumedienne escaped using a false identity in October 2019.
The others being tried in their absence, Mehdi Belhoucine, 24, and his brother Mohammed, 28, were reportedly killed in combat with ISIS.
The most serious charges against those before the court are faced by Ali Riza Polat, 35, allegedly Coulibaly’s right-hand man.
He is accused of procuring in Belgium as well as helping to pay for the plot from the proceeds of crime.
During the weekend after the attacks, about four million people gathered throughout France in shows of solidarity with the victims.
JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) and NousSommesTousCharlie (We’re all Charlie) became slogans and hashtags reflecting the defence of free speech.
Richard Malka, Charlie Hebdo’s lawyer, says he will be representing freedom of expression at the trial.
But he believes the principle has been severely damaged and accuses the left and academia of suppressing controversial opinions for fear of causing offence.
“For 30 years, I have been defending this newspaper, which symbolises everything the Kouachi brothers sought to eradicate,” he told the news magazine Le Point, which headlined its 18-page preview of the trial “Have the Islamists won?”.
Mr Malka, who has been under police protection since the attacks, said: “My unhappy client is therefore liberty. I fear that in the medium term it is a lost cause.”
The trial is expected to last until mid-November. The accused face sentences of between 10 years and life imprisonment if convicted.
Updated: September 4, 2020 05:35 PM