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CRIME

French court jails for life sole surviving Paris 2015 attacker

The sole surviving member of an Islamic State terror cell that killed 130 people in Paris in November 2015 was handed a whole-life sentence on Wednesday at the end of a trial that aimed to draw a line under the worst peace-time atrocity in modern French history.

French court jails for life sole surviving Paris 2015 attacker
A court-sketch made of defendant Salah Abdeslam, the prime suspect in the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks (Photo by Benoit PEYRUCQ / AFP)

Salah Abdeslam, a 32-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan origin, was captured alive by police four months after the bloodbath at the Bataclan concert hall and other locations.

His sentence, the toughest possible, was read out by the head of five-judge panel overseeing the trial of 20 men accused of involvement in the assault on the capital.

Wearing a khaki-coloured polo shirt, he stood motionless and showed no emotion as he was declared guilty and sentenced by chief judge Louis Peries during an hour-long speech.

“The sentences are quite heavy,” one tearful survivor, Sophie, told AFP as she left the court in central Paris. “I feel a lot of relief. Ten months of hearings — it’s helped us to rebuild.”

The trial has been the biggest in modern French history, the culmination of a six-year international investigation whose findings run to more than a million pages.

READ MORE: The difficult and emotional search for truth at France’s biggest terrorism trial

The other 19 suspects, accused of either plotting or offering logistical support, were also found guilty, with their sentences ranging from two years to life in prison.

All of the attackers except for Abdeslam blew themselves up or were killed by police during or after the assault.

Hundreds of victims and witnesses packed out the benches of the specially constructed courtroom as the sentences were read out.

“My first reaction is that we have the feeling of turning a page after the verdicts,” Gerard Chemla, a lawyer representing victims at the trial, told reporters.

Change of heart?

Abdeslam had begun his appearances last September by defiantly declaring himself as an “Islamic State fighter” but finished tearfully apologising to victims and asking for leniency.

In his final statement, he urged the judges not to give him a full-life term, seeking to emphasise that he had not killed anyone himself.

“I made mistakes, it’s true. But I’m not a murderer, I’m not a killer,” he said.

His lawyers had also argued against the whole-life sentence, which prosecutors had demanded.

It offers only a small chance of parole after 30 years and has been pronounced only four times previously since being created in 1994.

Abdeslam, a one-time pot-smoking lover of parties, discarded his suicide belt on the night of the attack and fled back to his hometown, Brussels, where many of the extremists lived.

He told the court that he had had a change of heart and decided not to kill people.

“I changed my mind out of humanity, not out of fear,” he insisted.

But after hearing that his suicide belt was defective, the judges concluded that this “cast serious doubt” on his apparent “renunciation”.

They ruled he was a “co-author” of the attacks which “constituted a single crime scene.” 

Trauma

A team of 10 jihadists laid siege to the French capital, attacking the national sports stadium, bars, and the Bataclan in an assault immediately claimed from Syria by the IS group.

The attacks shocked France, with the choice of targets and the manner of the violence seemingly designed to inflict maximum fear, just 10 months after a separate assault on the Charlie Hebdo magazine.

In one instance, the court heard a recording of gunmen taunting people trapped in the Bataclan as they fired on them with Kalashnikov machine guns from a balcony above.

The huge loss of life marked the start of a gruesome and violent period in Europe as IS ramped up attacks across the continent.

France, under then president Francois Hollande, declared the country “at war” with the extremists and their self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

Hollande, who testified in November, called the trial “exceptional” and “exemplary”, adding in a statement that the accused had been “judged with respect for the law”.

The 10-month process had “enabled us to look for the truth in order to better understand the course of Islamist terrorism”, he said.

Other culprits

In the absence of the rest of the attackers, the men on trial besides Abdeslam were suspected of offering mostly logistical support or plotting other attacks. 

Only 14 out of the 20 appeared in person, with the rest missing, presumed dead.

One of them, Mohamed Abrini, admitted to driving some of the Paris attackers to the capital and explained how he was meant to take part but backed out.

The court handed him a life sentence with 22 years as a minimum term.

Also on trial was Swedish citizen Osama Krayem, who has been identified in a notorious IS video showing a Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage.

He was sentenced to 30 years in jail and ordered to serve two thirds of it behind bars, as was fellow jihadist Sofian Ayari, a Tunisian arrested along with Abdeslam in Brussels in March 2015.

The pair were suspected of planning an attack on Amsterdam airport.

All of the convicted are able to appeal their verdicts and sentences.

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POLITICS

Voting rights for foreigners in France back on political agenda

Foreigners living in France could get the right to vote in certain elections if a newly-created bill passes through parliament.

Voting rights for foreigners in France back on political agenda

The newly elected president of the National Assembly’s law commission calmly lobbed a 40-year-old electoral hand-grenade into the political discourse of the summer – and then went on holiday.

Sacha Houlié, MP for the Vienne and a member of Macron’s LREM party, filed a bill on Monday that would, if passed, allow non-EU citizens living in France to vote and stand for office in local elections. 

Under current electoral legislation, only French citizens can vote in presidential and parliamentary elections; EU citizens in France can vote in local and European elections; and non-EU citizens have no voting rights in France whatsoever. 

EU citizens can also stand for office in local elections, but are barred from becoming mayor or running for a seat in the Assembly.

Since Brexit, Britons in France have not been allowed to vote in local or  local office, any many Brits who were on their local councils had to resign because they were no longer EU citizens.

Many countries limit voting for their citizens who are out of the country, so non-EU citizens living in France often do not have the right to vote in any country.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and the far-right Rassemblement National wasted little time criticising Houlié’s bill.

Darminin’s entourage said that the minister was “firmly opposed” to the idea.

The far-right party went further. “We have crossed the limits of indecency and incomprehension of what the French are asking for,” Rassemblement national spokesperson Laurent Jacobelli told Franceinfo, echoing the sentiment of the party’s interim president Jordan Bardella, who insisted the passing of the bill would mark the, “final dispossession of the French from their country”.

Houlié said: “The right to vote for European Union nationals in local elections already exists in France. No one is surprised that a Spaniard or a Bulgarian can vote in municipal elections. But it has surprised many people that the British can no longer do it since Brexit.”

Given the current shape of the Parliament in France, it seems unlikely that the latest bill will pass. But it is far from the first time it has been on the table.

François Mitterrand had pledged during his presidential campaign in 1981 to ensure “the right to vote in municipal elections after five years of presence on French territory.”

But, in the face of opposition from the right, he backed down from this particular promise. 

In October 2004, Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior, tried to move forward with an electoral plan that would have allowed non-EU citizens certain voting rights – but was blocked by his own UMP party.

François Hollande re-launched the proposal during his 2012 campaign, before quietly letting it go in the face of opposition from both sides of the political spectrum.

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