PARIS (AP) — In a custom-built secure complex embedded within a 13th-century courthouse, France on Wednesday opened the trial of 20 men accused in the Islamic State group’s 2015 attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead and hundreds injured.
Nine gunmen and suicide bombers struck within minutes of each other at France’s national soccer stadium, the Bataclan concert hall and Paris restaurants and cafes on Nov. 13, 2015. Survivors of the attacks as well as those who mourn their dead packed the rooms, which were designed to hold 1,800 plaintiffs and over 300 lawyers.
The lone survivor of the extremist cell from that night, Salah Abdeslam, is the key defendant. Abdeslam, whose brother was among the suicide bombers that night, appeared wearing a black short-sleeved shirt and black trousers, his long hair tied back.
He was the first asked to identify himself and, after intoning a prayer, requested to state his profession, declared he was “a fighter for Islamic State.”
Abdeslam is the only one charged with murder. The same IS network went on to strike Brussels months later, killing another 32 people.
The presiding judge, Jean-Louis Peries, acknowledged the extraordinary circumstances of the events of that night and the nine-month trial to come.
“The events that we are about to decide are inscribed in their historic intensity as among the international and national events of this century,” he said.
Dominique Kielemoes, whose son bled to death at one of the cafes, said the month dedicated to victims’ testimonies at the trial will be crucial to both their own healing and that of the nation.
“The assassins, these terrorists, though they were firing into the crowd, into a mass of people. But it wasn’t a mass — these were individuals who had a life, who loved, had hopes and expectations, and that we need to talk about at the trial. It’s important.” she said,
Twenty men are charged, but six of them will be tried in absentia. Abdeslam, who abandoned his rental car in northern Paris and discarded a malfunctioning suicide vest before fleeing home to Brussels, has refused to speak with investigators. But he holds the answers to many of the remaining questions about the attack and the people who planned it, both in Europe and abroad.
The modern courtroom was constructed within the storied 13th-century Palais de Justice in Paris, where Marie Antoinette and Emile Zola faced trial, among others.
For the first time, victims can also have a secure audio link to listen from home if they want with a 30-minute delay.
The trial is scheduled to last nine months. The month of September will be dedicated to laying out the police and forensic evidence. October will be given over to victims’ testimony. From November to December, officials including former French President François Hollande will testify, as will relatives of the attackers.