PARIS, Sept 2 — Eight suspects go on trial Monday over the July 2016 attack in the Mediterranean city of Nice where a radical Islamist killed 86 people by driving a truck into thousands of locals and tourists celebrating France’s national day.
The attacker Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian, was shot dead by police following the more than four-minute rampage when he zig-zagged down the seaside embankment of the Promenade des Anglais, destroying lives in his wake.
The seven men and one woman who will go on trial in Paris are accused of crimes from being aware of his intentions to providing logistical support and supplying weapons.
Only one suspect, Ramzi Kevin Arefa, faces the maximum penalty of life imprisonment if convicted as a recurring offender. The others risk between five and 20 years in prison.
The trial, which is due to last until mid-December, is the latest legal process over the Islamist attacks that have hit France since 2015.
A Paris court on June 29 convicted all 20 suspects in the trial over the November 2015 attacks in the French capital which left 130 dead.
The extremist Islamic State (IS) group rapidly claimed the Nice attack, although French investigators did not find any links between the attacker and the jihadist organisation which at the time controlled swathes of Iraq and Syria.
While Lahouaiej-Bouhlel cannot now be brought to justice, the trial — as in the November 2015 case — marks a hugely important moment for survivors and relatives of the victims.
“It is better not to expect much from it so as not to be disappointed. Above all, we want a good trial, for everyone,” said Bruno Razafitrimo, who lost his wife Mino in the tragedy and is now bringing up their two young sons alone.
Of the accused, three suspects are charged with association in a terrorist conspiracy and the five others with association in a criminal conspiracy and violating arms laws.
The attack was the second most deadly post-war atrocity on French soil after the November 2015 Paris attacks.
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 a victims’ association which is taking part in the trial.
“We are trying 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.
In the November 2015 attacks trial, just one member of the assault team, Salah Abdeslam, was not killed during or in the wake of the strikes.
He discarded his suicide belt on the night of the attacks and claimed to have changed his mind about attacking. But he was sentenced to life in prison with only a tiny chance of parole after 30 years, the toughest possible punishment under French law.
– ‘Wound will never heal’ –
Of the accused, seven will appear in court with one suspect, Brahim Tritrou, tried in absentia, after fleeing judicial supervision to Tunisia where he is now believed to be under arrest.
Just three of the accused are currently under arrest with one held in connection with another case. The defendants are a mix of Tunisians, French-Tunisians and also Albanians.
The trial will take place within the historic Palais de Justice in central Paris in the same purpose-built courthouse that hosted the November 2015 attacks hearings.
Some 30,000 people gathered on the seafront to watch a fireworks display celebrating France’s annual July 14 national day when Lahouaiej-Bouhlel began his murderous rampage.
The attack left permanent scars on the city of Nice, a byword for urban seaside glamour on France’s Cote d’Azur but which like the neighbouring Mediterranean cities of Toulon and Marseille has seen rising immigration and social tension.
Nice was struck again in October 2020 when a Tunisian Islamist radical stabbed to death three people in a church.
Nice’s right-wing mayor, Christian Estrosi said: “This wound will never heal, whatever the outcome of the trial. This wound is too deep.”
According to French and Tunisian press reports, the body of Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was in 2017 repatriated to Tunisia and buried in his home town of M’saken, south of Tunis. This has never been confirmed by the Tunisian authorities. — AFP