Madeleine Schwartz - The End of the Trial

Updated 2 years ago on October 17, 2022

The French jury does not reach a verdict based on evidence or argument, but on what is known as "inner conviction. On the last day of the trial of the Paris attacks on November 13, 2015, presiding judge Jean-Louis Periez reminded the court that the law

Does not require that each of the judges and jurors give an account of the means by which they have persuaded themselves. It does not prescribe rules by which they must assess the completeness and sufficiency of the evidence. It requires them to ask themselves questions in silence and reflection, and in the sincerity of their conscience to ascertain what impression the evidence against the accused and the means of his defense have made on their minds. The law asks them only one question, which contains the full measure of their duties: "Do you have a deep conviction?"

Logic and certainty receded. After an investigation involving more than a million pages of documents and a ten-month trial involving hundreds of witnesses, the court was asked to go with its gut.

The deliberations concluded on June 29, when nineteen of the twenty defendants were found guilty of participating in the attacks. The decision, which came with a 126-page verdict, was not based on sentiment alone. But as I left the courtroom for the last time, I was struck by how much remained unknown, unresolved.

In the first half of the trial, the victims of the attacks were voiced; in the second half, the court looked more closely at the defendants. But the people we most wanted to hear about were absent. We don't hear Sami Amimura, who blew himself up on the Bataclan stage. We do not hear Abdelhamid Abaaoud, although we saw him joyfully jumping over the turnstile in the Paris subway, helped by a passerby who did not know that Abaaoud and his accomplices had just killed 39 people. He died during a police raid a few days after the attacks. We don't hear about Ussam Atar, who is believed to have plotted the attacks, nor about the four others killed in Syria or Iraq, which deprives them of a major role in the trial of the century.

There were fourteen people at the trial: eleven in the Plexiglas box, three seated in bouncing chairs behind their lawyers. Only one of them, Salah Abdeslam, was present in Paris on the day of the attacks. The French press did not immediately notice that many of these men did not fit the stereotype of the radicalized man, which in the French sense usually implies fervent religious beliefs and anti-social behavior. Most of them talked about smoking pot, going to clubs, and drinking. Few of them were practicing Muslims. Abdella Chuaa said of his fellow accuser Mohamed Abrini: "He never showed me that he was radical. The day before, he was playing bingo with beer!" Chuaa drove Abrini to the airport on June 23, 2015. Abrini was on his way to Syria to join IS. Ali El-Haddad Asoufi, who is accused of acquiring weapons used in the attacks, was asked about Ibrahim El-Bakraoui, who later blew himself up in the Brussels attack: "He was not radicalized!" replied El-Haddad Asoufi. He had classic pants, shiny shoes, he had a haircut. He looked like a barber, really!".

Sophien Ayari, who spoke most about his involvement in the attacks, described his motivation as political rather than religious. He rejected the idea of radicalization as a form of religious practice. When we talk about radicalization, we associate it with religion in the sense that it follows it: you start practicing a little bit, become more strict, and one day you wake up and are ready to commit jihad. For me, it's completely different." What he experienced was a political awakening that turned violent. He was angry at the Assad regime in Syria, he said. When you see people running in panic, with humiliation on their faces, you feel powerless. It was violence that I was not prepared for. It awakened something in me that was hard to deal with. I was following my emotions in a context that didn't help me be clear. And the day I was told, 'We need you somewhere else,' I left."

Some observers believed that the lack of outward signs of radicalization was intentional. The court discussed at great length the idea that individuals planning terrorist attacks might be hiding their religious beliefs. But in their closing arguments, prosecutors returned to a definition of the term based on the same external signs. Even noting the imprecision of the word "radicalization," they argued that certain behaviors and practices should be of concern. According to Menia Arab-Tigrin, El Haddad Asufi's lawyer, these include not only watching propaganda videos and dividing the world into believers and infidels, but also refusing to shake hands with women, wearing traditional clothing, and having long beards. In an interview the day before sentencing, she told me that French case law on "radicalization" evolved with the desire to commit a violent act in mind: the difference between the fact that the beard and the scarf are in themselves evidence of a possible crime, and that the law also requires evidence of intent and a violent-oriented ideology. Prosecutors, she said, reverted to an outdated notion that risks confusing religious expression with terrorism. In the end, the court's decision provided ample evidence for its conclusions. The document details each defendant's involvement in the attacks, relying on forensic evidence. However, it mentions the word "radicalization" 34 times without a precise definition, and retains many of the behavioral criteria used by the prosecution.

The lack of certainty in the definition of radicalization was exposed in the Salah Abdeslam case. Throughout the trial, his position fluctuated between that of a hardened IS soldier and an ordinary offender. On the first day of the trial, when asked about his profession, Abdeslam stated, "I gave up my job to become an Islamic State soldier." (Peries replied, "It says here that you are a temporary worker.") But Abdeslam also said that he swore allegiance to IS just 48 hours before the attacks. He was not a diligent Muslim. He liked going to clubs, smoking pot. I was like the people in the cafes [where the attacks took place]," he said. I wore a nice shirt. I wore perfume.

As the trial continued, Abdeslam showed more and more emotion. He cried in court, apologizing to the victims. He said that he did not want to take part in the attacks, that he had decided not to blow himself up "out of humanity." (The court ruled that his vest was defective). What, after ten months, can we say with certainty about Abdeslam, whose personality continued to change until the very end? During a court visit on April 21, psychiatrist Daniel Zaguri stated that Abdeslam had two identities: "a little guy from Molenbeek [a predominantly Muslim neighborhood near Brussels, where he grew up]" and "a soldier of God. Salah Abdeslam probably oscillates between two boundaries: toughness and openness," Zaguri said. This question is a Cornelian dilemma: either to renounce the totalitarian camp in which he was involved, or to renounce himself.

Zaguri said that, in his opinion, Abdeslam embodies the idea of the banality of evil. (He took the opportunity to mention that the familiar phrase was not coined by Hannah Arendt herself, but by the psychiatrist who had reported on her). But could it be a strategy? Near the end of his interrogation in court, Abdeslam said: "I want to be forgotten about forever. I didn't choose to be who I am today." At times, however, it seemed as if he was simply repeating the arguments of his lawyers. On June 27, the last day of the trial, he spoke of the "evolution" of his personality, his "return to public life," and noted that "France is losing its values. Hadn't we heard these words in his lawyer's closing statement just three days before?

Outside the courtroom, the term "radicalization" is gaining ground in French political discourse. A law passed last year requires that "radicalization" be challenged everywhere, from continuing education to public sports teams. According to Ményi Arab-Tigrin, defining radicalization too broadly poses not only a legal risk, but also a social risk - "exacerbating existing social divisions.

As for Abdeslam, he faces life imprisonment. His lawyers have not yet announced whether there will be an appeal. At this point we are dealing with his last statement in court. Some people, he said, will accuse him of not being sincere in his remorse. He did not convince the judges when he continued: "Over 130 dead and four hundred wounded: who could be insincere in asking forgiveness in the face of so much suffering?"

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