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Charlie Hebdo trial: Fugitive widow of attacker among 14 guilty over January 2015 Paris attacks

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The terror attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo shocked France and the wider world
The terror attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo shocked France and the wider world   -   Copyright  AP Photo
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The trial of 14 people accused of links to a series of Islamist militant attacks in Paris in January 2015, including on Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket, came to an end on Wednesday with all convicted of involvement.

The attacks took place between 7-9 January, leaving 17 people dead along with the three gunmen.

Hayat Boumeddiene, the fugitive wife of attacker Amédy Coulibaly, received a 30-year prison sentence. Boumeddiene had fled to Syria and is believed to be still alive.

The principal defendant, Ali Riza Polat, was found guilty of "complicity" in "terrorist" crimes committed by the brothers Saïd et Chérif Kouachi, as well as Coulibaly. Described as the logistician of the attacks, he also received a 30-year prison sentence though prosecutors had called for a life sentence. His lawyer said they would appeal.

Mohamed Belhoucine, believed to have died in Syria and one of three defendants tried in abstentia, was given a life sentence.

For six of the 11 accused present, the five-judge panel did not classify the crimes as "terrorist", denouncing a lack of proof.

Most of the sentences were less stringent than had been demanded by prosecutors, who alleged the accused were "kingpins" in the attacks.

Two men who were former co-detainees with Coulibaly, Amar Ramdani and Nezar Mickaël Pastor Alwatik, were given 20 and 18 year sentences respectively. The court decided they knew of the existence and nature of the plan to attack the Hyper Cacher supermarket. Another accomplice, Willy Prevost, was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Verdict reactions: 'We must fight this fascism'

Lawyers, victims and their family members reacted on Wednesday after the verdicts.

"This is the end of a trial that's been crazy, illuminating, painful but which has been useful," said Richard Malka, a lawyer representing Charlie Hebdo. "I hope it's also the beginning of something else, a realisation of the will to act that we felt during this trial, a will of citizens to say that we must fight against Fascism. And this Fascism, it's Islamism. This is not Islam. It is a distortion of Islam but this is not Islam."

Patrick Klugman, a lawyer for the survivors of the market attack, said the verdict sent a message to sympathisers. “We blame the executioner but ultimately it is worse to be his valet,” he said.

Marie Louisa Jean-Philippe, the mother of police officer Clarissa Jean-Philippe who was killed by Amédy Coulibaly, said she felt "relieved but not yet in great shape" after the ruling.

Polat's lawyer, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, described him as a scapegoat who knew nothing about Coulibaly's plans, and denounced a "fictional trial".

"He will appeal because when someone is innocent and convicted, even if 30 years in prison is less than what the prosecution required, 30 years is unbearable of course," she said.

Questions unanswered

Devastating testimony from witnesses and victims of the attacks were heard over the three month trial, along with outbursts and insults from the only defendant present facing a life term.

Of the 14 people on trial, three fled to Syria just before the attacks. The other 11 formed a circle of friends and prison acquaintances, claiming they were either unwitting facilitators of the crimes, or that they were helping with other crimes such as armed robbery.

The evidence against the accused was largely based on phone records and some traces of DNA. But the arguments did not lift the veil on all the grey areas concerning the attacks, such as the supply of weapons.

Investigators identified two supply "networks" of arms to Amédy Coulibaly: one based in Lille and the other in the Belgian Ardennes. But nothing was established over how the Kouachi brothers received their weapons.

January 2015: Paris suffers days of terror

Brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi stormed the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015, killing 12 people. They claimed it was because the magazine had insulted Muslims by publishing cartoons of the prophet Mohammad.

The first victim was Frédéric Boisseau, who worked in maintenance. Then, the Kouachis seized Corinne Rey, a cartoonist who had gone down to smoke, and forced her upstairs to punch in the door code. She watched in horror as they opened fire on the editorial meeting. For years, she harboured paralysing guilt that her life was spared while so many others died.

“I was not killed, but what happened to me was absolutely chilling and I will live with it until my life is over,” she testified. “It took me some time to understand it, but I’m not the guilty one in this. The only guilty ones are the Kouachis and their accomplices.”

The next day, Amédy Coulibaly shot and killed a young policewoman, Clarissa Jean-Philippe, after failing to attack a Jewish community centre in the suburb of Montrouge.

By then, the Kouachis were on the run.

On January 9, Coulibaly then committed more murders in a kosher supermarket. With a GoPro camera on, and carrying an assault rifle, pistols and explosives, he methodically fired on an employee and a customer, then killed a second customer before ordering a cashier to close the store's metal blinds.

The first victim, Yohan Cohen, lay dying on the ground and Coulibaly turned to some 20 hostages in the room and asked if he should “finish him off.” Despite the pleas to leave him alone, Coulibaly fired a killing shot, according to testimony from cashier Zarie Sibony.

“You are Jews and French, the two things I hate the most,” he told them.

Authorities didn’t immediately link the other shooting incidents to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. But all three attackers died in near-simultaneous police raids, with the Kouachi brothers cornered in a printing shop with their own hostages some 40 kilometres away.

It was the first attack in Europe claimed by the Islamic State group, which struck Paris again later that year to even deadlier effect.

Who helped the shooters and how?

This is the issue at the heart of the trial. Prosecutors said the Kouachis essentially self-financed their attack, while Coulibaly and his wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, took out fraudulent loans.

Boumeddiene, the only woman on trial, fled to Syria days before the attack with two other absent defendants, Mohamed et Mehdi Belhoucine. The brothers are believed to be dead, while Boumeddiene is thought to be alive, somewhere between Syria and Turkey.

One witness, the French widow of an Islamic State emir, testified from prison that she'd run across Boumeddiene late last year at a camp in Syria.

One of the defendants gambled day and night during the three-day period, learning what happened only after emerging from the casino.

Another was a pot-smoking ambulance driver. A third was a childhood friend of the market attacker.

Ali Riza Polat, described as the lieutenant of the virulently anti-Semitic Coulibaly, drew rebukes from the chief judge for his outbursts. He is the only defendant present to face a life term. A handwriting expert testified it was Polat who scrawled a list of arms and munitions — along with their prices — which was linked to the attack.

Prosecutors requested a minimum sentence of five years for a suspect who went along to shop for weapons and a car, and watched as his friend removed the GPS tracker from a motorcycle but asked no questions.

Free after a brief prison term, for reasons both defence attorneys and victims described as baffling, was the far-right sympathiser turned police informant who actually sold the weapons to Coulibaly.

France hit by more terror attacks as trial went on

Three weeks into the trial, on September 25, a Pakistani man steeped in radical Islam and armed with a butcher’s knife attacked two people outside the former Charlie Hebdo offices, where the original attack had taken place. Charlie Hebdo had by then moved to new premises.

Six weeks into the trial, on October 16, a French schoolteacher who opened a debate on free speech by showing students the Muhammad caricatures was beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee.

Eight weeks into the trial, on October 30, a young Tunisian armed with a knife and carrying a copy of the Quran attacked worshippers in a church in the southern city of Nice, killing three. He had a photo of the Chechen on his phone and an audio message describing France as a “country of unbelievers.”

Just two days later, three defendants came down with coronavirus and the trial was suspended for a month.

“After having wished so long that this trial would come to an end, we all felt how difficult it would be to be finished with it,” Charlie Hebdo's Yanick Haenel wrote for the 54th day of testimony, published Tuesday.

As he left the courthouse, he wrote, "I again saw the images of the massacres at Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher and Montrouge, then the faces of the accused seeking out our gaze across the stand: Two intolerable visions.

“We looked for the relationship between these two visions, but did we find it? We were waiting for the truth, and we have misfortune for everyone: Victims, families, accused.”