PARIS (AFP) — The biggest trial in France’s modern history opened on Wednesday of 20 suspects charged over the November 2015 Paris attacks that saw 130 people killed, with the expected nine months of hearings set to reopen still raw wounds.
The suicide bombing and gun assault by three teams of jihadists on bars, restaurants and the Bataclan music venue — planned in Syria and later claimed by the Islamic State terror group — was the worst postwar atrocity on French territory.
The only surviving attacker, Salah Abdeslam, was present with 13 other defendants as the trial started under the highest security at a purpose-built facility at the historic court of justice on the Ile de la Cite in central Paris.
Abdeslam told the court “there is no god but Allah” as he was asked to identify himself at the trial Wednesday.
Six others are being tried in absentia. Twelve of the 20 people on trial, including Abdeslam, face life sentences if convicted.
“We are entering the unknown,” said Arthur Denouveaux, a survivor of the Bataclan music venue attack and president of Life for Paris, a victims’ association.
“We’re eager for it to start but we’re wondering how it’s going to go over the next nine months,” he said.
The trial will last until May 2022 with 145 days of scheduled hearings involving about 330 lawyers, 300 victims and testimony from former president Francois Hollande in November.
“These events are seared into our collective memory,” Justice Minister Eric Dupont-Moretti told French TV, vowing that the trial would rise to the challenge.
Surviving gunman Abdeslam, now 31, who was born in Belgium but has French and Moroccan nationality, fled the scene of the carnage after abandoning his suicide belt, which investigators later found to be defective.
He was captured four months later in Brussels, hiding in a building close to his family home.
Abdeslam, who was dressed in a black t-shirt and black COVID mask for the start of the trial, has refused to cooperate with the French investigation and remained largely silent throughout a separate trial in Belgium in 2018.
A major question is whether he will speak at his scheduled testimony, set for mid-January. Before the trial opened, he was seen in conversation with his lawyers Olivia Ronen and Martin Vettes.
“He must speak to victims. If he does not say anything, his cowardice will be even greater than what we assume it to be today,” Hollande told France info radio.
Under the tightest security, Abdeslam was taken in a convoy from the Fleury-Merogis prison outside Paris to attend the trial.
The trial will scrutinize how a squad of killers managed to enter France undetected, allegedly using the flow of migrants from Islamic State-controlled regions of Syria as cover.
Fourteen of the accused — who face charges ranging from providing logistical support to planning the attacks as well as weapons offenses — are expected to be present in court.
They include Osama Krayem, a Swede who Belgian investigators have identified as one of the killers of a Jordanian pilot burnt alive in a cage by IS in early 2015 in Syria. He is also under investigation in Sweden for war crimes.
The alleged coordinator, Belgian national Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was killed by French police northeast of Paris five days after the attacks.
Of the six tried in absentia, five are presumed dead, mainly in air strikes in Syria.
The horror was unleashed late on Friday, November 13, when jihadists detonated suicide belts outside the Stade de France stadium where Hollande was watching France play a football match against Germany.
A group of Islamist gunmen, including Abdeslam’s brother Brahim, later opened fire from a car on half a dozen restaurants.
The massacre culminated at the Bataclan music venue. Three jihadists stormed in during a performance, killing 90 people.
Philippe Duperron, whose 30-year-old son was fatally wounded in the Bataclan and is president of the victims’ association 13onze15, said he hoped the trial would “give a voice to all those who are no longer there.”