Eight suspects are on trial Monday for the July 2016 bombing in the Mediterranean city of Nice, where a radical Islamist killed 86 people while driving a truck into thousands of residents and tourists celebrating France’s National Day.
The assailant, a 31-year-old Tunisian man named Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, was shot dead by police after the rampage lasted more than four minutes on the seaside seawall of the Promenade des Anglais.
The seven men and one woman who will be tried in Paris are charged with crimes of knowing of his intentions to provide logistical support and supply weapons.
Only one suspect, Ramzi Kevin Arefa, faces the maximum sentence of life imprisonment if convicted of a second offense. The others risk between five and 20 years in prison.
The trial, which opens at 1:30 p.m. (11:30 GMT) and is due to last until mid-December, is the latest legal proceeding regarding the Islamist attacks that have hit France since 2015.
On June 29, a Paris court convicted the 20 suspects in the trial of the November 2015 attacks in the French capital that left 130 dead.
The trial will take place in the historic Palais de Justice in Paris, in the same purpose-built courthouse that hosted hearings for the November 2015 attacks, and a special venue has been set up in Nice to allow victims to follow the proceedings via a live broadcast.
While Lahouaiej-Bouhlel can no longer be brought to justice, the trial – as in the November 2015 case – marks an extremely important moment for survivors and victims’ loved ones as they seek to move on.
The extremist group Islamic State (IS) quickly claimed responsibility for the attack in Nice, even if French investigators ultimately found no link between the assailant and the jihadist organization which controlled whole swaths of the country at the time. Iraq and Syria.
Among the defendants, three suspects are charged with association with a terrorist conspiracy and the other five with association with a criminal conspiracy and violation of weapons laws.
The attack, which left 15 children and teenagers dead and 450 injured, was the second deadliest post-war atrocity on French soil after the November 2015 attacks in Paris.
Six years after the attack, “the fact that the sole perpetrator is not there will create frustration. There will be many questions that no one will be able to answer,” said Eric Morain, lawyer for an association of victims who participate. in the trial.
“We try to prepare them for the fact that the sentences may not be commensurate with their suffering,” said Antoine Casubolo-Ferro, another lawyer for the victims.
During the trial of the November 2015 attacks, only one member of the assault team, Salah Abdeslam, was not killed during or after the strikes.
He threw away his suicide belt the night of the attacks and claimed to have changed his mind about the attack. But he was sentenced to life in prison with only a slim chance of parole after 30 years, the harshest possible sentence under French law.
French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said: “I understand this frustration, it is human. But there will be a judicial response. We are responding to this barbarism with the law.”
“The wound will never heal”
Among the defendants, only seven will appear in court after a suspect, Brahim Tritrou, tried in absentia, fled under judicial supervision to Tunisia where he is currently under arrest.
Only three of the defendants are currently under arrest, including one being held in connection with another case. The defendants are a mixture of Tunisians, Franco-Tunisians and Albanians.
Some 30,000 people had gathered on the seafront to watch a fireworks display celebrating the annual July 14 holiday in France when Lahouaiej-Bouhlel began his rampage.
The attack left permanent scars on the city of Nice, synonymous with urban seaside glamor on the French Riviera but which, like the neighboring Mediterranean cities of Marseille and Toulon, has seen increased immigration and tensions social.
Nice was hit again in October 2020 when a Tunisian Islamist radical stabbed three people to death in a church.
The right-wing mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, said: “This wound will never heal, regardless of the outcome of the trial. This wound is too deep.”
According to French and Tunisian press reports, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s body was repatriated to Tunisia in 2017 and buried in his hometown of M’saken, south of Tunis. This has never been confirmed by the Tunisian authorities.