Published on the 4th of November 2017 on The Atlantic
PARIS - Shortly after 6 p.m. on Thursday November 2, in a packed, silent courtroom thrumming with emotion and anticipation, France’s highest criminal court found Abdelkader Merah guilty of criminal terrorist conspiracy and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. Not to a life sentence, as the public prosecutor had asked, since the court acquitted Merah on charges of complicity. The conspiracy in question was the one carried out by his younger brother, Mohammed, who, in a 10-day spree in March 2012, murdered three French paratroopers, all of North African origin and two of them Muslim, in southwest France, and later, a rabbi and three children outside a Jewish school in Toulouse, before being killed by police in a commando raid several days later.
One of the worst targeted attacks on Jews in France since the Second World War and also the first jihadist attack on French soil since the mid-1990s, Mohammed Merah’s rampage was seen as a massive intelligence failure—it came during a turf war between French intelligence services under then-President Nicolas Sarkozy and in an election season. It was also seen as a wake-up call. The attacks marked the beginning of a terrible new season, one that would, alas, blossom in 2015 and 2016 when 239 people died in a series of terrorist attacks in France, some masterminded by other pairs of blood brothers.
As the first big terrorist trial to take place since that new wave of attacks, the Merah trial has been seen here as hugely symbolic, a chance to put a face to a more widespread phenomenon, even an opportunity for national catharsis. The mixed verdict, after a five-week trial that had been intensely covered in the French media, drew a complicated, unsettled response. Distraught families of the victims—Jews and Muslims alike—said it didn’t go far enough; the state prosecutors plan to appeal. The scholar Gilles Kepel, who has been tracking Islamic radicalism in France for decades, said that not handing Abdelkader Merah a life sentence would be seen as “a sign of weakness” by jihadists currently serving time in French prisons—which in recent years have themselves become incubators of the murderous ideology—and that some jihadists and their fans would now see Merah as “a hero.”
And yet there were the facts of the case. Or the lack thereof. The panel of judges—the case was deemed of such importance that professional judges and not a popular jury should adjudicate—said they had not found enough material evidence to convict Abdelkader of direct involvement in his brother’s attacks. Having attended this trial, I can say that this ruling seems coherent with what I heard presented in court. The judges ruled that Abdelkader had been an ideological influence on Mohammed, which was beyond a doubt to anyone. The charge of criminal terrorist conspiracy is a vague and therefore problematic one, as Abdelkader’s lawyers were quick to point out. His defense was led, with fierce and melodramatic skill, by France’s most famous and media-savvy defense lawyer, Éric Dupond-Moretti, nicknamed “The Acquittor” and known for taking on celebrity cases—one concerned a soccer champion and a sex tape; another a young black man beaten by French police. The day after the verdict, Dupond-Moretti said Abdelkader Merah had become “the incarnation of absolute evil,” but that if the court had convicted him without evidence, terrorism would have won.
Even before the verdict was handed down, it was clear the trial was about more than Abdelkader Merah, who has been in pre-trial detention since his arrest just days after his brother died in March 2012. In quiet Toulouse-accented French, with a full, wispy beard and long curly hair pulled back in a ponytail, he had taken the stand and declared himself an “orthodox Muslim”—he refused the term “Salafist”—who respected the law of Allah and not that of the French state. He openly proclaimed his affinity for al-Qaeda, even as he said he had not been complicit in his brother’s actions. (Among the evidence the judges cited in their ruling was a wealth of jihadist material found in Abdelkader’s possession, as well as his contacts with other known French jihadists, including the brothers Jean-Michel and Fabien Clain, the latter of whom, according to French investigators, claimed the Islamic State’s responsibility for the 2015 attack on the Bataclan concert hall.)
It was hard to ignore the symbolism of the venue. The trial was held, past two sets of metal detectors, in the Court of Assise’s Salle Voltaire, named for the great Enlightenment defender of separation of church and state and of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, in the centuries-old Palais de Justice on the Île de la Cité in the very heart of Paris. The palais abuts La Sainte-Chapelle, built by King Louis IX in the 13th century to house his collection of Christian relics, including the crown of thorns brought back from the Crusades. It is the same compound where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned before being taken to the guillotine, where Flaubert was tried, and acquitted, on obscenity charges for Madame Bovary, where Captain Alfred Dreyfus was eventually found innocent of treason and Marechal Pétain, the governor of France’s Vichy regime, found guilty of it and sentenced to death. (France abolished the death penalty in 1981, under Socialist President François Mitterrand.)
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