The lone surviving member of a group that carried out a 2015 rampage across Paris was found guilty Wednesday of all charges, including murder and terrorism, and sentenced to life in prison, bringing the biggest criminal trial in modern French history to an end.
While public attention during the 10-month trial focused on Abdeslam, a Belgian-born French citizen, 19 other suspected perpetrators and accomplices also were charged. Five are presumed dead, and one is imprisoned in Turkey.
Nineteen of the 20 defendants were found guilty of all charges on Wednesday, with punishments ranging from suspended sentences to life in prison.
The court sentenced the 32-year-old Abdeslam to the harshest form of a life-in-prison sentence under French law, an extremely rare punishment that will make parole almost impossible. It was not immediately clear whether he would appeal.
Lawyers representing the victims welcomed the severity of the court’s ruling. “Salah Abdeslam’s sentence is symbolic and extremely rare, because it sanctions extremely serious events,” lawyer Gérard Chemla told reporters.
Prosecutors contended that Abdeslam only abandoned his plans to kill bystanders after his explosive vest malfunctioned. In court, he disputed the accusation, saying he’d joined the commando plot in its final stages of planning after his brother recruited him but backtracked from using his explosive vest because he saw himself reflected in the people sitting at a cafe. He recalled “a moment of doubt” before he would have blown himself up.
Abdeslam had already been found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Belgian court, in a separate trial that focused on his shootout with police as they sought to apprehend the fugitive in the months after the Paris attacks.
The French trial was unprecedented in scale and highly symbolic. Victims were invited to take part as civil parties, and the more than 2,500 plaintiffs were represented by hundreds of lawyers. Authorities built a customized courtroom to allow hundreds of survivors and victims’ relatives to follow the proceedings in person or through video link from overflow rooms. Psychologists were available on-site and via a hotline.
Outside the courthouse on the Île de la Cité in the center of Paris, hundreds of police officers set up barricades and cordoned off large stretches of the island whenever the defendants were in attendance.
Over the 10 months, the court heard from experts; officials, including former president François Hollande; survivors and witnesses. While the proceedings were videotaped, access to the footage was restricted — with no plans for it to be shown on television.
Sharon Weill, a law professor at the American University of Paris who focuses on terrorism trials, said the proceedings aimed to establish criminal responsibility but also give victims a space “to speak about their suffering.”
Still, much remains unknown. Investigators struggled to shed light on key details of the planning and execution of the attacks, and some defendants refused to respond to detailed questions.
But Weill said the constant courtroom presence of victims or their relatives, who at times directly engaged with the suspects, generated “strong exchanges.”
Abdeslam had refused to answer questions in the Belgian trial, and he appeared to take a combative stance when the Paris trial got underway in September. Asked about his profession, he said he had abandoned all other work “to become a fighter of the Islamic State.”
During testimony, he showed little remorse. “I support the Islamic State. I am in favor of them. I love them,” Abdeslam said months into the proceedings, blaming “the aggression of France and the West” for the Paris rampage.
Yet this spring, Abdeslam appeared to have changed his tone, several times offering “apologies” and “condolences” to the victims in tearful comments in court.