PARIS – A panel of French judges on Wednesday found all 14 defendants guilty of involvement in the 2015 attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket on the outskirts of Paris.
The long-awaited verdict followed a three-month trial that captivated the French public even in the midst of a deadly pandemic. France, far more than any other Western nation, has been a target of Islamist terrorists in recent years: More than 260 people have been killed in attacks since 2012. But given the particular emotional significance of the Charlie Hebdo attack, Wednesday’s verdict represented a national catharsis.
Of the 14 defendants, three were tried in absentia and five were spared the charge of terrorist complicity, sentenced only to involvement in a criminal conspiracy.
The trial was hugely symbolic for France. Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the two brothers who killed 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper office in Paris, were killed on that day in January 2015. Their accomplice, Amedy Coulibaly, who was responsible for a related attack at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket two days later that left four people dead, was killed at the scene by French police.
The defendants in the resulting trial were accused of either criminal conspiracy or terrorist complicity in the Charlie Hebdo shootings or the Hyper Cacher attack.
The defendants and their lawyers claimed that the trial was a means of identifying culprits when the actual authors of the attacks had already been killed. “You absolutely want a culprit, but it’s not going to be me,” said Ali Riza Polat, 35, during his questioning in October.
Polat was accused of having provided weapons to Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers, charges he denied. The judges handed him the heaviest sentence of 11 defendants present for the trial – 30 years in prison, 20 without the possibility of parole.
Richard Malka, the attorney for Charlie Hebdo, spoke with emotion after the verdicts were handed down.
“It’s the end of something today, but I hope as well that it’s the beginning of something else: I felt, I believe – at least I hope – an awareness, an awakening, a desire to act, among citizens against a danger that kills, that wants to impose fear and terror,” he said. “This danger is not Islam – that has to be said clearly. This danger is Islamism – that is to say a fascism – and we cannot find excuses for it.”
The government of French President Emmanuel Macron introduced last week a long-awaited bill to combat “Islamist separatism,” though neither of those terms ultimately featured in the proposed legislation.
The government had come under fire from critics at home and abroad for not having clearly distinguished between “Islamism” and “Islam,” especially after certain government ministers took aim at subjects such as halal meat in supermarkets and “Islamo-leftism” at French universities.
But opinion polls show that the French public largely supports acting against Islamist separatism, and the government’s draft law – in general language – bans things such as virginity certificates and imposes more restrictions on home schooling, among other provisions.
The trial became an important plot point in the kind of terrorist violence it sought to adjudicate, inextricably linked to events outside the courtroom.
Charlie Hebdo marked the start of the trial in early September by republishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, ignoring a strict prohibition in the Muslim faith that bans any image of the prophet. France has suffered three terrorist attacks since, including the beheading of Samuel Paty, a public school teacher in a Paris suburb who had shown his students those caricatures.
Macron’s empathic defense of the right to publish the cartoons drew ire and inspired protests across the Arab world, and a security guard was stabbed outside the French Embassy in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.
The Muhammad cartoons have also become a source of heated debate in France, especially after local authorities in cities such as Toulouse and Montpellier projected them onto government buildings in homage to Paty. In an interview with Al Jazeera in late October, Macron said the caricatures should not be seen as symbols of the French republic, though he added that he would not compromise on the right to publish them.
“I have a duty to safeguard this freedom,” he said.
The cartoons have continued to haunt France. The first of the recent attacks came in late September, when two French journalists unrelated to Charlie Hebdo were stabbed outside the newspaper’s former Paris offices by a 25-year-old Pakistani man who appeared not to realize that his target had changed locations.
The second was the mid-October beheading of Paty in broad daylight by a Chechen asylum seeker. That attack followed a social media campaign by a Muslim parent angered that Paty had shown the caricatures to students, though the man’s daughter had not been present in Paty’s class on the day in question.
In the third attack, in late October, three people were fatally stabbed in a basilica in Nice by a Tunisian migrant who had arrived in Europe shortly before.
Malka, the lawyer, couched the trial’s verdict as a sign that the French public would face Islamist extremism without apology.
“I have the feeling that things are moving a little bit, that there’s no excuse to find and that it’s not ‘Islamophobic’ to say that,” he said.
“We don’t kill, we don’t threaten death because someone has a different idea.”