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‘Waiting for justice’ – France remembers Charlie Hebdo terror attacks as suspects go on trial

Fourteen alleged accomplices in the 2015 jihadist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly and a Jewish supermarket go on trial next Wednesday more than half-a-decade after days of bloodshed that still shock France.

'Waiting for justice' - France remembers Charlie Hebdo terror attacks as suspects go on trial
"I am Charlie" became a rallying cry during the protests in 2015 to support the victims and the satirical magazine's freedom of speech. Photo: AFP

The attacks heralded a wave of Islamist violence that has left 258 people dead and raised unsettling questions about modern France's ability to preserve security and harmony for a multicultural society.

Twelve people, including some of France's most celebrated cartoonists, were killed on January 7th, 2015, when brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi went on a gun rampage at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, whose no-taboo style, including hugely controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, had divided the country.

A day later, Amedy Coulibaly, a close acquaintance of Cherif Kouachi who he had met in prison, killed female police officer Clarissa Jean-Philippe, 27, during a routine traffic check in Montrouge, outside Paris.

On January 9th Coulibaly killed four men, all Jews, during a hostage-taking at the Hyper Cacher supermarket in the east of Paris. He recorded a video saying the attacks were coordinated and claiming them in the name of Islamic State (IS) jihadists.

Portraits of the victims of the attacks hang outside the former Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. Photo: AFP

Coulibaly was killed when police stormed the supermarket. The Kouachi brothers were themselves killed in the printers where they holed up in Dammartin-en-Goele northeast of Paris.

While the three perpetrators are dead, suspects accused of providing them with various degrees of logistical support will finally face justice.

The trial had been delayed several months due to the coronavirus epidemic.

The court in Paris will sit until November 10th and, in a first for a terror trial, proceedings will be filmed for archival purposes given public interest.

READ ALSO: A timeline of terror in France since Charlie Hebdo attacks

'Helped at all stages'

Of the 14 suspects, three are being tried in absentia: Hayat Boumedienne, the partner of Coulibaly, and the Belhoucine brothers Mohamed and Mehdi.

All three are believed to have travelled to the area of northern Syria and Iraq that at the time was under IS control.

Reports have suggested they are dead but this has never been confirmed and they remain subject to arrest warrants.

The satirical magazine is known for its provocative drawings. Photo: AFP

Facing the most serious charge of complicity in terror and a maximum sentence of life in jail, are Mohamed Belhoucine, the elder of the two brothers, and Ali Riza Polat, 35, a French citizen of Turkish origin who will be the most prominent of the accused in the dock.

Polat, seen as close to Coulibaly, is suspected of having played a central role in preparing the attacks, notably by helping to build up the arsenal used by the three perpetrators.

He is also accused of providing help “at all stages of the preparation”. Just after the attacks, he repeatedly tried to leave France for Syria but has been held since March 2015.

Mohamed Belhoucine is accused of being the ideological mentor of Coulibaly after meeting him in jail, opening up channels of communication for him to IS and writing the oath of allegiance that Coulibaly made to the group.

Most of the other suspects are on trial for association with a terror group, a crime that comes with a jail sentence of up to 20 years.

The slogan “I am Charlie” was known worldwide after the attacks. Photo: AFP

'Waiting for justice'

People who escaped the massacres at Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher are set to give testimony and the process is set to stir up memories of one of the darkest chapters in modern French history.

“This trial is an important moment for them,” Marie-Laure Barre and Nathalie Senyk, lawyers for victims at Charlie Hebdo, said in a statement to AFP.

“They are waiting for justice to be done to find out who did what, knowing that those who pulled the trigger are no longer there,” they added.

Among those who died at Charlie Hebdo were some of France's most celebrated cartoonists including its director Stephane Charbonnier, known as “Charb”, 47, Jean Cabut, known as “Cabu”, 76, and Georges Wolinski, 80.

The publication's willingness to cause offence made it a champion of free speech for many while others believed it crossed a line too often.

But the massacre united the country in grief with the slogan #JeSuisCharlie going viral.

“This trial matters even though Amedy Coulibaly is dead,” said Patrick Klugman, lawyer for the victims at Hyper Cacher. “Without those defendants in the box, Coulibaly would never have been able to act.”

Safya Akorri, a defence lawyer, said the “rigour” of the French justice system will also be on trial.

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WILDFIRES

French police track forest fire-starters by air and land

On the ground, two officers from a special mobile brigade of France's paramilitary gendarmerie speed along a forest track.

French police track forest fire-starters by air and land

Above them, a helicopter scans the landscape to warn them of any fires or anyone who might be looking to start one.

These are the members of a newly created police team who have just started patrolling in southwest France to seek out and arrest the fire-starters devastating the region’s forests.

In the last week, no less than 20 fires have broken out in the forest bordering the seaside resort of Soulac-sur-Mer in the La Gironde department of southwest France, says the local gendarmerie.

While some have burned for just a 100 square metres (322 square feet), the largest devoured 30 hectares (74 acres) of forest.

Scorched trees and charred trunks line the paths and cycle paths that criss-cross the woods.

To stop the devastation, local officials have sent in the new unit, the Forest Vigilance Platoon (PVF) made up of 15 reservist gendarmes, a senior police officer and two motorcyclists from the mobile brigade, backed up by the
helicopter.

Spread across three zones, the PVF patrol the forest on motorbikes, all-terrain bicycles or in cars, where possible, on the hunt for fire-starters.

Set up just last week they started patrolling on Thursday.

The idea is that the PVF will free up firefighters who have been stretched thin battling blazes that since Tuesday have burned up 7,400 hectares of pine forests at the southern end of Gironde.

“After the major fires in July, we observed a rise in the number of arson cases,” said Martin Guespereau, deputy prefect for defence and security in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, which covers the Gironde.

“There are around twenty fires of unknown origin a day in Gironde.”

¬†According to France’s National Forests Office (ONF) nine out of 10 fires were started by people — and three out of 10 were started deliberately.

Forest off-limits

“The Forest Vigilance Platoon is a support division, whose aim is to prevent, detect and possible to arrest,” said Captain Christophe Roque, who was given the job of putting the team together.

Red-and-white signs at the edge of the Soulac-sur-Mer forest inform walkers that due to the “very severe” risk of fire, the forest is off-limits to the public until further notice — and has been since August 11.

A few cyclists were nevertheless out on the trails on Saturday, and were quickly intercepted by the gendarmes of the PVF.

“As soon as we come across someone, we get their identity,” said one member of the team, Bruno Kechtoff. “Because if we come across the same person several times, then that becomes suspicious.”

A message comes over the radio: two outbreaks of fire barely 500 metres (yards) apart, near Bazas, south of Bordeaux, the regional capital. A local has reported seeing someone on a moped wearing “yellow-trimmed” trousers”.

The LVF’s helicopter veers off towards Bazas, 130 kilometres away (80 miles) away.

Where they are sent next depends on where the next fires break out, says Constable Jeremy Hernandez. “We have been called here urgently but we can move if other areas are concerned.”

Then they are in their car and driving off, siren wailing, on the look-out for a quad reported in the woods.

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