Fourteen suspected accomplices of the jihadist gunmen who attacked the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket appeared in a Paris court Wednesday, five years after the three days of terror that rocked France.
The killings, which began on January 7, 2015, sparked a series of attacks on French soil, including by "lone wolves" said to be inspired by the Islamic State group, that have since claimed more than 250 lives.
Hearings began under heavy security as eleven of the suspects faced the court on charges of conspiracy in a terrorist act or association with a terror group.
Three others, including the wife of one of the gunmen, are being tried in absentia because they fled to IS-held territory in Syria days before the attacks.
Survivors and family members of victims attended the trial's opening, seated opposite the bench of the accused, visibly emotional and wearing face masks because of Covid-19 restrictions.
- 'Even our blasphemy' -
Charlie Hebdo, whose gleeful mocking of social taboos has made it a beacon of free speech for many, marked the trial's opening by republishing cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that had angered Muslims around the world.
"That's the essence of the Charlie Hebdo spirit: It's refusing to give up our freedoms, our laughter, and even our blasphemy," the paper's lawyer, Richard Malka, said before entering the courtroom.
The publication of the cartoons earned the paper criticism abroad, notably in Turkey and Pakistan.
"We strongly condemn Charlie Hebdo magazine's decision to republish caricatures that disrespect our religion and our prophet," said the foreign ministry of Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country.
Some 150 experts and witnesses will be heard over the next two and a half months in the trial that will revisit one of the most painful chapters in France's modern history.
The three assailants were killed by police, but suggestions that those on trial were only minor players have been rubbished by prosecutors and relatives of the victims.
"These people aren't lackeys," said Patrick Klugman, a lawyer for one of the victims, insisting that the suspects shared a deep-seated anti-Semitism.
- 'Just so unfair' -
Twelve people, including some of France's most celebrated cartoonists, were gunned down on January 7, 2015, when brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi stormed the paper's offices in eastern Paris.
A day later, Amedy Coulibaly, who became close to Cherif Kouachi while they were in prison, killed a 27-year-old police officer, Clarissa Jean-Philippe, during a traffic check in Montrouge, outside Paris.
"I just want to know why my daughter was killed. It's just so unfair," Clarissa's mother Marie-Louisa Jean-Philippe, who will testify at the trial, told French daily Liberation on Wednesday.
Coulibaly went on to kill four men, all Jews, during a hostage-taking at the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris on January 9. He recorded a video saying the three attacks were coordinated and carried out in the name of the Islamic State jihadist group.
Coulibaly was killed when police stormed the supermarket. The Kouachi brothers were killed when officers carried out a nearly simultaneous operation at the printing shop where they were holed up northeast of Paris.
But shortly after the trial opened, a lawyer for one of the defendants blamed French intelligence services, saying the bloodbath "could have been avoided if the intelligence and surveillance services had done their jobs properly".
A claim rejected as "disgusting" and "indecent" by lawyers for the civil parties in the case.
- Weapons and ideology -
Of the 14 suspects, three escaped arrest: Hayat Boumedienne, Coulibaly's girlfriend, and two brothers, Mohamed and Mehdi Belhoucine, all of whom fled for IS-controlled areas in Syria just days before the attacks.
The Belhoucine brothers were reportedly killed while fighting alongside IS, while French officials suspect Boumedienne is on the run in Syria. Arrest warrants remain outstanding for all three.
Mohamed Belhoucine and Ali Riza Polat, a French citizen of Turkish origin, face the most serious charges of complicity in a terrorist act, which carry a maximum sentence of life in jail.
The former is thought to have become the ideological mentor of Coulibaly after meeting him in jail, opening up channels of communication for him to IS.
Polat, seen as close to Coulibaly, is suspected of playing a central role in preparing the attacks, notably by helping to build up the arsenal of weapons used.
Given its historical importance, the trial at the Paris court will be filmed for official archives, a first for a terror trial. It is scheduled to run until November 10.