Fourteen people are on trial in France over the deadly attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo more than five years ago. Most of the alleged accomplices are in court in Paris, but three are being tried in absentia. They are accused of helping the militant Islamist attackers who shot dead 12 people in and around Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office in January 2015.A third gunman shot dead a policewoman and attacked a Jewish supermarket. In total, 17 people were killed in a period of just three days. The killings marked the beginning of a wave of jihadist attacks across France that left more than 250 people dead. In the days following the attacks, millions of people took part in solidarity marches across France and around the world under the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie).
The magazine has marked the start of the trial by reprinting controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked protests in several Muslim countries. President Emmanuel Macron defended the freedom of the press and the French “freedom to blaspheme, which is linked to freedom of conscience”.
Fourteen people stand accused of helping to prepare and plan the killings. Their trial has been delayed by almost four months because of the coronavirus pandemic. In March, the presiding judge said France’s lockdown measures had made it impossible to bring together “all the parties, witnesses and experts under the necessary sanitary conditions”.
The alleged accomplices are accused of obtaining weapons and providing logistical support for the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s office on 7 January 2015, as well as the subsequent attacks on a police officer and the Hyper Kosher supermarket. But three suspects are believed to have disappeared in northern Syria and Iraq and will be tried in absentia. Some reports suggest the three were killed in bombing campaigns against the Islamic State group (IS), but this has not been confirmed.
There are about 200 plaintiffs in the trial and survivors of the attacks are expected to testify, France’s RFI broadcaster reports. On Monday, anti-terror prosecutor Jean-François Ricard dismissed the suggestion that it was just “little helpers” who were facing justice. It is about individuals who are involved in the logistics, the preparation of the events, who provided means of financing, operational material, weapons [and] a residence,” he told France Info radio. “All this is essential to the terrorist action. The trial is expected to last until November.
They include 35-year-old Ali Reza Polat, who is seen as the main link between the two attacks and is believed to have had a key role in obtaining the weapons used. He subsequently attempted to flee to Dubai, Lebanon and Syria but without success. Mickaël Pastor Alwatik’s DNA was found on two guns discovered at Coulibaly’s home and a glove at the scene. Mohamed Fares has told investigators he was a middleman involved in the sale of the assault rifle used in the supermarket attack, while Amir Ramdani, Samir Makhlouf, Willy Prevost and Christophe Raumel are accused of having provided support.
Two people in Belgium – garage owner Metin Karasular and his associate Michel Catino, an unemployed Italian in his 60s – and two more in north-eastern France – garage owner Miguel Martinez and his associate Abdelaziz Abbad – are accused of supplying “assault rifles, automatic pistols, rocket launchers, chargers and ammunition, bulletproof vests” to the three gunmen. On trial in absentia is Hayat Boumeddiene, Coulibaly’s partner. She fled France for Syria a week before the attack. Some reports suggested she had been killed in a US air strike last year but she was then reportedly seen in the al-Hol camp for IS detainees before subsequently escaping. Mohamed and Mehdi Belhoucine are accused of helping Hayat Boumeddiene get to Syria. Both are believed to have been killed in Syria or Iraq. Mohamed Belhoucine also provided email addresses used by the other defendants.
The radical weekly magazine was well known for taking swipes at the French establishment and religion and has long drawn controversy. Cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad brought Charb death threats as well as 24-hour police protection prior to his death. There was also a petrol bomb attack on the magazine’s offices in 2011.The publication has also been seen as a beacon for free speech, with many of its defenders using the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie to defend it.
Charb strongly defended the Prophet Muhammad cartoons as symbolic of freedom of speech. “I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings,” he told the Associated Press in 2012. “I live under French law. I don’t live under Koranic law. “And on Tuesday, the magazine republished the cartoons that made them a target in 2015. “We have always refused to do so, not because it is prohibited… but because there was a need for a good reason to do it,” an editorial said. It added: “To reproduce these cartoons in the week the trial begins over the January 2015 terrorist attacks seemed essential to us.”