Trial Over 2016 Terror Attack in Nice Opens Today in Paris
PARIS — The third high-profile terrorism trial in France in two years was scheduled to open on Monday in Paris, with eight defendants facing charges in a 2016 attack in the Mediterranean city of Nice that left more than 80 people dead and hundreds more injured or traumatized.
It comes on the heels of monthslong trials in the 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks. The three mass killings shook France to its core in the mid-2010s and left unhealed wounds, turning the proceedings into moments of catharsis as much as fact-finding.
Over more than three months, in a highly secure courthouse on an island in the Seine River, judges will seek to determine what led a man to barrel a cargo truck for more than a mile through spectators celebrating Bastille Day on July 14 in Nice. That may prove a difficult task since the driver was killed by the police and appeared to have acted alone, leaving only people accused of being indirect accomplices in the dock.
Still, even though the two previous trials struggled to clarify the mechanisms and motives of the attacks in the absence of most of the perpetrators, lengthy hearings afforded to the victims should at least help them — and to some extent help the wider public in France — to come to terms with the shocking events.
“These trials also contribute to the construction of a sort of collective memory around the mass killings we were the victims of,” François Molins, chief prosecutor at the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest judicial court, told France Inter radio station last week. “They must also serve to remind us of what makes our dignity and our humanity.”
The attack in Nice, which took place on the famed seaside Promenade des Anglais and which the authorities have portrayed as an act of Islamist terrorism, was the second-deadliest on French soil since World War II. It killed 86 people, including several children, and injured more than 450.
The driver was Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian who swerved a 19-ton rental truck onto the sidewalk of the promenade and, over four long minutes, careened through crowds as they were leaving Bastille Day fireworks.
“I saw the chairs thrown up in the air, the bodies flying around,” said Jean-Claude Hubler, a 57-year-old salesman who was on the beach along the street at the time. “I knew it was going to be a war scene.”
Mr. Hubler, who today heads Life for Nice, a support group for victims, said that he had rushed to help people hit by the truck, trying to identify those most seriously injured among the dozens of crushed bodies lying on the sidewalk. “There was one lady whose hand I held until she died,” he recalled.
Like more than 850 other people, Mr. Hubler will be a “partie civile,” or plaintiff, in the trial, a status given to those harmed or traumatized by the attack. The proceedings will be broadcast in a convention center in Nice and accessible on a live internet radio for plaintiffs.
But Mr. Hubler said that he did not expect much from the 15 weeks of proceedings, noting that the defendants were only accused of indirectly helping the assailant and that none are considered Islamist radicals.
Of the eight defendants — seven men and one woman — none are charged with complicity in murder. Three are accused of participating in a terrorist conspiracy, an offense punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Among them is Ramzi Kevin Arefa, who faces life imprisonment for allegedly helping the assailant buy a gun while already convicted of an unrelated crime.
The rest are charged with less-serious crimes such as arms trafficking, with potential sentences of five to 10 years in prison. One defendant will be tried in absentia.
“They played second fiddle,” said Simon Clémenceau, a lawyer representing seven of the plaintiffs. “For a certain number of them, if not all of them, the issue is whether or not they are considered terrorists.”
Although the Islamic State claimed that Mr. Lahouaiej Bouhlel was one of its “soldiers,” there is no evidence that he was actually linked to the terror group. Investigators said Mr. Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a nonpracticing Muslim with a history of domestic violence, suffered from serious psychological disorders and quickly became self-radicalized in the days leading up to the attack by watching jihadist videos.
He slipped under the radar of intelligence services, in a move that foreshadowed smaller-scale stabbings and shootings perpetrated by isolated extremists that have kept France on edge.
Célia Viale, a 28-year-old artist whose mother died in the attack and who is the vice-president of another victims’ support group, Promenade of the Angels, said that she would probably get only “a relative truth” at the trial.
But Ms. Viale added that she would attend and testify to “try to give a voice” to her mother and “make people understand the sufferings that lie behind, the difficulty to recover from these events.”
The trial, she said, “is cathartic for many people.”
As evidence of this therapeutic dimension, nearly a third of the proceedings will be devoted to the testimonies of plaintiffs.
Just as in the previous two terrorism trials, the proceedings will most likely revive a conversation about the balance between security and civil liberties in a country with numerous counterterrorism laws. Echoes of heated debates about the place of Islam in society may also reach the courtroom.
“This trial is the culmination of the underlying changes that have taken place in the political and judicial spheres, as well as in society, since the 2015 attacks,” Mr. Clémenceau, the lawyer, said.