PARIS (REUTERS) – A French court on Wednesday (June 29) handed a life sentence to the lone survivor of the Islamist squad that killed 130 people in a night of carnage across Paris, bringing some closure to survivors and a country whose psyche was left scarred.
Salah Abdeslam was found guilty on terrorism and murder charges, with no possibility of early release, the most severe criminal sentence possible in France and one handed out only four times previously.
Nineteen other men judged for helping organise the Nov 13, 2015 attacks that targeted the Bataclan music hall, six bars and restaurants and the Stade de France sports stadium were also all found guilty.
“Justice has been served,” Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo said.
“Against inhumanity, it’s our democracy’s strength to respond with justice to the attacks that plunged our city and our country in mourning. Paris remembers and will always stand by the victims and their families.”
Mr Arthur Denouveaux, a survivor of the Bataclan attack, where 90 people died, called it a fair ruling.
“It will help us,” Mr Denouveaux, who heads a victims’ association, told reporters, while adding: “it’s not healing everything.”
Mr Francois Hollande, France’s president at the time of the attacks, said: “Those who were guilty were sentenced in accordance with the law. France has shown that our democracy can be strict without calling into question its rules and its principles.”
“Beyond the sentences, I’m thinking today of all the victims,” he added.
A defiant Abdeslam had said at the start of the trial that he was a “soldier” of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
He later apologised to the victims and said during the trial that he had chosen at the last minute not to detonate his explosive vest. But, based on the investigations and hearings, the court ruled otherwise.
“The court considered that the explosive vest malfunctioned,” judge Jean-Louis Peries said. Abdeslam is “guilty of being a member of a terrorist network,” he also said.
The ruling can be appealed, and some lawyers of the accused hinted they would do so. The 120-page text of the ruling is set to be made public on Thursday.
It has been a trial like no others, not only for its exceptional length of 10 months, but also for the time it devoted to allowing victims to testify in detail about their ordeal and their struggles in overcoming it, while families of those killed spoke of how hard it was to move on.
Thirteen other defendants, 10 of whom were also in custody, were also in the courtroom alongside Abdeslam at the hearings.
The court found them guilty of crimes ranging from helping provide the attackers with weapons or cars to planning to take part in the attack. Six more, tried in absentia and believed to be dead, were also found guilty.
Some of those judged in absentia were also sentenced to life in prison, as was Mohamed Abrini, who was meant to be the 10th member of the commando unit until he backed off a few days before the attacks. Unlike Abdeslam, Abrini will qualify for possible early release after 22 years.
The other defendants were sentenced to shorter jail terms.
Several will not go back to prison as the time spent in preventive custody will be deducted from their sentence.
“This is important for the victims,” Ms Catherine Szwarc, a lawyer representing some of the victims, said of the guilty verdicts.
But for some victims, the end of a long, intense trial stirred some mixed feelings.
“There is also a little bit of fear,” Mr Denouveaux had told Reuters ahead of the verdict. The trial “filled our lives for the past 10 months and what will replace it? But we have overcome a terrorist attack, it will be easier to overcome the emptiness following the trial.”
Mr Philippe Duperron, father of a victim and head of a victims’ association, said: “I am convinced that the extreme severity (of the verdict) will satisfy a number of our members and a number of victims.”
“For my part I considered that the sentence was not the reparation that the victims awaited. The reparation that the victims awaited was in the trial being held, in the possibility that has been offered to all the victims to express themselves in court and to drop their pain and their suffering.”