Court Finds 14 Guilty of Aiding Charlie Hebdo and Anti-Semitic Attacks

By Roger Cohen

The accused were sentenced to between four years and life imprisonment for their roles in the 2015 attacks on a kosher supermarket and the magazine that killed 17 people.

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A French court on Wednesday found all 14 defendants guilty in a landmark trial for the terrorist attacks that killed 17 people, including staff members of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in January 2015.CreditCredit...Jordi Mir, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Roger Cohen

PARIS — A French court on Wednesday found 14 defendants guilty of aiding in the terrorist attacks that killed 17 people in January 2015, including 10 people at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Régis de Jorna, the presiding magistrate, wearing a mask and a red robe, read the verdict to a hushed wood-paneled courtroom in northern Paris, where the masked defendants sat boxed in a glass enclosure. Six of the eleven accused who were present in court were acquitted of the charge of terrorist association but found guilty of lesser crimes.

Two days after the killings at Charlie Hebdo, in a separate but coordinated attack, four people were killed at a kosher Paris supermarket. The perpetrator, Amedy Coulibaly, identified customers as Jews before shooting them. Mr. Coulibaly, who was killed in a shootout with police, declared he was murdering the people he hated most in the world: “The Jews and the French.”

A maintenance worker and policeman were also killed in or close to the Charlie Hebdo headquarters, and Mr. Coulibaly shot a policewoman the day before the supermarket attack.

Three other defendants were tried in absentia during the landmark trial. Two of them are presumed dead. Another, Hayat Boumeddiene, Mr. Coulibaly’s partner at the time, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for being part of a criminal terrorist network. Terrorist trials in France are judged not by jury but by five magistrates.

The trial, which opened more than three months ago, was delayed for several weeks by a coronavirus outbreak among the accused. It began in September with the hope that it might assuage the pain of 2015, when almost 150 people were killed in and around Paris in several jihadist attacks. That hope proved vain.

Instead, the trial served as backdrop to renewed terrorism. A stabbing in September outside Charlie Hebdo’s former headquarters left two people injured. Samuel Paty, a history teacher, was beheaded in October after showing his class the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that ignited the devastating violence of 2015. Later that month, three people were killed in a stabbing attack in a Catholic basilica in Nice.

The sentences handed out ranged from four years to life imprisonment, slightly less on average than the prosecution had sought, and a sign that the prosecution sometimes struggled to draw a direct line between the accused and the attacks. Mohamed Belhoucine, who is presumed dead in Syria, was handed the heaviest sentence for his role in “mentoring” Mr. Coulibaly. His brother, Mehdi, was not sentenced because, the court said, the evidence he is dead is overwhelming.

One other defendant, Ali Riza Polat, was sentenced to 30 years for playing “an essential role” in the preparation of the attacks. His lawyer immediately said he would appeal.

With the three perpetrators all dead — Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, the brothers who massacred the staff of Charlie Hebdo, were also killed in a shootout with police 2015 — the trial focused on people charged with providing logistical support, including cash, weapons and vehicles. They all proclaimed their innocence during the trial, sometimes in vehement outbursts suggesting the outcome of the proceedings was preordained.

The trial provided moments of agonizing drama. Video surveillance footage of the carnage at Charlie Hebdo was shown — “a war scene,” as one of the prosecutors put it. Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, the director of the publication, was shot seven times, his body shattered. Survivors spoke of being haunted even now.

Corinne Rey, known as Coco, described the agony of being forced at gunpoint to punch in the entrance code to the office, where her colleagues were gathered around a table, laughing as they discussed editorial ideas before the shooting started. “It was a moment of extreme solitude,” she said. “Nobody can put themselves in my place.”

At Hyper Cacher, the kosher supermarket, the scene was scarcely less horrific. Yohan Cohen, one of Mr. Coulibaly’s victims, aged 20, agonized on the ground for some time after being shot. A survivor, in tears, described to the court her shame at blocking her ears because she could not bear Mr. Cohen’s screams. The widow of Philippe Braham, another victim, told the court she had not slept a night in five years and had to explain to her three young fatherless children that “a bad man killed your Daddy.”

But all the emotion left nothing resolved. Charlie Hebdo’s republishing of the cartoons, in the name of press freedom, at the start of the trial provoked indignation among France’s large Muslim community. A political storm followed as President Emmanuel Macron decided in October that the time had come to tackle the roots of what he called “Islamist separatism.”

The president’s determination led this month to a draft law to “reinforce Republican principles.” This targets the organization and funding of Islamist extremism. Attacked as inadequate by the right, it has been seized on by the left as a sign of a rightward shift by Mr. Macron.

The trial proved to be less catharsis than catalyst. France’s agonizing trial by jihadism goes on. The country is not moving on, not yet at least.

Other trials will follow next year, including for the massacre of 130 people in and around Paris, mainly at the Bataclan theater, in November 2015. That trial is scheduled to run from September 2021 to March 2022. On the political right and left, positions are hardening, tensions sharpened by the pandemic, acute economic difficulty and repeated clashes between protesters and police over a range of issues.