The trial of 20 men accused in the Islamic State group’s coordinated attacks on Paris in 2015 that transformed France opened Wednesday in a custom-built complex embedded within a 13th-century courthouse.
Nine gunmen and suicide bombers struck within minutes of each other at several locations around Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, leaving 130 people dead and spreading fear across the nation. It was the deadliest violence to strike France since World War II and one of the worst terror attacks to hit the West.
The worst carnage was at the Bataclan concert hall, where three men with assault rifles gunned down scores of people and grabbed a handful of hostages. Other attackers targeted the national soccer stadium, where the president was attending a game, and as well as cafes filled with people on a mild autumn night.
The lone surviving attacker from that night, Salah Abdeslam, is the key defendant — but he has so far refused to speak to investigators, denying them answers to many of the remaining questions about the attacks and the people who planned them. Abdeslam, whose brother was among the suicide bombers, appeared wearing a black short-sleeved shirt and black trousers, his long hair tied back.
When asked to state his profession, he declared he was “a fighter for Islamic State” after intoning a prayer.
Abdeslam, who fled the night of the attacks after ditching his car and a malfunctioning suicide vest, is the only defendant charged with murder. The other defendants present face lesser terrorism charges.
The presiding judge, Jean-Louis Peries, acknowledged the extraordinary nature of the attacks, which changed security in Europe and France’s political landscape, and the trial to come. France only emerged from the state of emergency declared in the wake of the attacks in 2017, after incorporating many of the harshest measures into law.
“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.
The trial is being described as the biggest in France’s modern history.
Over the next nine months, there will be over 140 days of hearings involving about 330 lawyers and 1,800 survivors and relatives of victims. About 300 witnesses will be heard, including François Hollande, French president at the time of the attacks.
Ahead of the trial, Mr Hollande told French media that this was an important moment for the victims of the attacks, which he described as an “act of war” at the time.
The suspects arrived at court in police vehicles under heavy security on Wednesday morning. They were seated together in the defendants’ box, wearing face masks, before the trial opened.
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, thought 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.
One survivor, Jérôme Barthélemy, said he wanted to hear how other victims had been coping since the attacks but didn’t expect the accused to speak.
Of the 20 men charged, six will be tried in absentia. They are facing charges of murder, complicity and terrorist conspiracy.
Abdeslam will be questioned multiple times — but it remains to be seen if he will break his silence.
The same IS network went on to strike Brussels months after the Paris attacks, killing another 32 people.
Authorities have to extraordinary lengths to ensure security at the trial, building an entirely new courtroom within the storied 13th-century Palais de Justice in Paris, where Marie Antoinette and Emile Zola faced trial, among others.
Survivors of the attacks as well as those who mourn their dead on Wednesday packed the complex’s rooms, which were designed to hold 1,800 plaintiffs and over 300 lawyers.
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 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 then-French President François Hollande — who was at the Stade de France on the night of the assaults — will testify, as will relatives of the attackers.
Most of the accused, including Abdeslam, could be sentenced to life in jail if convicted.
Additional reporting from AP and BBC