PARIS – A French court on Tuesday ordered prison terms for eight suspects charged over the 2016 terror attack in Nice, where a suspected Islamist attacker ploughed his truck into a crowd celebrating the July 14 national holiday.
Two men were given the most severe sentences of 18 years behind bars for helping Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian resident, prepare an attack that killed 86 people and injured more than 450 in a four-minute rampage on a seaside embankment in the southern city before being shot dead by police.
Judges determined that Mohamed Ghraieb and Chokri Chafroud must have known about the attacker’s turn to Islamist radicalism and his potential to carry out a terror attack, based on records of phone calls and text messages among the three in the days ahead of the massacre.
Ghraieb, a 47-year-old from the same Tunisian town as Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, and Chafroud, a 43-year-old Tunisian, are also accused of helping to rent the delivery truck. They denied the charges.
Ramzi Arefa, 28 – who has admitted to providing Lahouaiej-Bouhlel with the gun he used to fire at police without hitting anyone – was handed a 12-year term, though he was not accused of criminal association with a terrorist or of being aware of Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s potential for launching an attack.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, later claimed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel as one of its followers, though investigators have not found any concrete links between the attacker and the Islamic militants who at the time controlled swathes of Iraq and Syria.
The five other suspects, a Tunisian and four Albanians, were sentenced to prison terms of between two and eight years on charges of weapons trafficking or criminal conspiracy, but without any terrorism link.
Brahim Tritrou was the only suspect tried in absentia after fleeing judicial supervision to Tunisia, where he is now believed to be under arrest.
Night of horror
Some 30,000 people had gathered on the Nice seafront to watch a fireworks display celebrating France’s annual Bastille Day holiday on July 14 when Lahouaiej-Bouhlel began his rampage.
According to French and Tunisian press reports, his body was repatriated to Tunisia in 2017 and buried in his home town of M’saken, south of Tunis. This has never been confirmed by the Tunisian authorities.
France has been buffeted by a wave of Islamist terror attacks since the killings at the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a Jewish supermarket in Paris in January 2015, often by “lone wolf” attackers acting in the name of ISIS or other jihadist groups.
In October, a Paris appeals court upheld the life sentence of Ali Riza Polat, accused of helping to find the weapons for the Charlie Hebdo attackers.
The Nice trial took place at the historic Palais de Justice in Paris, in the same purpose-built courtroom that hosted the hearings over the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead.
A special venue was also set up in Nice to allow victims to follow proceedings via a live broadcast.
For many of the victims, the sentences sought by prosecutors failed to match the scope of the suffering.
During the trial, many of the survivors gasped in horror when prosecutors showed grisly video footage, never seen publicly, of the vehicle as Lahouaiej-Bouhlel swerved through the crowd, trying to mow down as many people as possible.
Since 2016, France has tightened its counter-terrorism laws, increasing surveillance of suspected militants, although human rights groups have also criticised the legislation. AFP