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Charlie Hebdo trial resumes amid controversy over video conferencing

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By Emma Beswick
A man looks at a painting in tribute to the members of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Paris, France. Sept 2, 2020.
A man looks at a painting in tribute to the members of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Paris, France. Sept 2, 2020.   -   Copyright  Michel Euler/AP

The trial over the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack resumes in Paris on Monday after being suspended for three weeks when several defendants tested positive for coronavirus.

But some French legal professionals have taken issue with the fact that primary suspect Ali Riza Polat, who is ill with COVID-19, will not appear in person at court, but via video link.

"We refuse to support the sad spectacle of a criminal trial without the accused," 19 defence lawyers from the trial said in an op-ed published in Le Monde.

They hit out against an order signed Wednesday by the Minister of Justice, which said the final part of a criminal trial - pleadings and requisitions - could exceptionally take place when the accused was not physically present but connected via a videoconference during the coronavirus crisis.

"This order, created with millimetre precision to resume the trial that we are part of, is an iniquitous and flagrant violation of the fundamental rights of the accused and the rights of the defence,” they wrote.

“The physical presence of the accused in court is a fundamental guarantee of a fair trial and no exceptions can be made."

"Forcing a sick man, who risks years of criminal imprisonment, to give his closing statements in front of a microphone, between four walls, is unworthy of our rule of law, and no judge should be able to give a verdict without having to look into the eyes of the person receiving it," the defence attorneys said in the text addressed to France’s Minister of Justice Eric Dupond-Moretti.

Several magistrates’ unions and lawyers denounced the order on Friday, while the Association of Criminal Lawyers (Adap) has filed an emergency complaint against it, with a review scheduled on Tuesday afternoon, according to AFP.

Fourteen people are on trial accused of having helped the killers of 12 victims in the attack on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, a female police officer a day later, and four hostages at a Jewish supermarket.

Primary suspect Riza Polat is seen as the main link between the attacks, as well as having had a pivotal role in acquiring the weapons the assailants used.

After he received a COVID-19 diagnosis, the presiding judge ordered all those on trial to be tested, with at least two others testing positive and a further two being identified as contact cases.

"In view of the health protocols that require both positive and contact cases to isolate, the hearing will not be able to resume this week," Regis de Jorna said in an email sent on November 1 to lawyers involved in the case.

Before the delays, defence lawyers were scheduled to plead on November 6, 9, 10 and 11 with the verdict expected on the 13.

France has suffered several attacks in recent months including the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty, - who had shown Charlie Hebdo caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a class exploring the freedom of thought - by a suspected Islamic extremist.

Protests erupted in the days following the attack in many Muslim countries against France, its president, Emmanuel Macron, and its perceived animosity towards their faith.

France just entered its fourth week of a national lockdown to combat COVID-19 infections as the country grapples with a second wave of the virus in Europe.