Salah Abdeslam, the only survivor of the 10-man unit that struck Paris in coordinated terror attacks in 2015, has been found guilty of murder and sentenced to full-life in prison, the toughest life sentence available under French law.
Abdeslam, 32, a Brussels-born French citizen, was found guilty of taking part in the series of bombings and shootings across the French capital which killed 130 people and injured more than 490.
The attacks claimed by Islamic State began when suicide bombers struck outside the national sports stadium on the night of Friday 13 November 2015, followed by drive-by shootings and suicide bombings targeting cafés and restaurants. Finally, a gun attack at the Bataclan theatre during a rock concert by Eagles of Death Metal killed 90 people.
After the biggest criminal trial ever held in France, a panel of judges found Abdeslam guilty of terrorism.
Abdeslam was given a full-life term, the most severe penalty that can be imposed under French law. It offers only a small chance of parole after 30 years.
For 10 months in a specially built and heavily-guarded court, hundreds of people who survived the deadliest peacetime attack on French soil gave shocking details of their ordeal – from crawling past corpses at the Bataclan to being held hostage by gunmen there or ducking Kalashnikov fire at restaurant pavement tables.
Nine of the 10-men group who struck the city died that night, either killing themselves or being shot dead by police – including Abdeslam’s elder brother, Brahim, who detonated an explosive vest at a Paris bar.
Abdeslam was the only survivor. He went to a bar in the north of Paris but later dumped his explosive vest in a bin and later called friends to come and collect him and drive him back to Brussels.
For months, he hid in Brussels – where he had grown up – evading one of Europe’s biggest manhunts.
He was arrested in March 2016 after a shootout with Belgian police in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean. Days after his arrest, bombers suspected of being part of the same terrorist unit struck at Brussels airport and the city’s Metro system, killing 32 and injuring hundreds.
Paris investigators argued that Abdeslam had intended to blow himself up in a Paris bar on the night of the 13 November attacks in 2015, but that his explosive vest was defective. He argued that he backed out at the last minute.
He was accused of providing crucial planning and logistical support and also of dropping off suicide bombers at the Stade de France at the beginning of the night.
Abdeslam remained silent for years after his arrest in 2016.
Prosecutors emphasised the contradictions in Abdeslam’s testimony in the special Paris court. At the start of the trial, he had pledged allegiance to Islamic State and expressed regret that the explosives strapped to his body failed to detonate.
Later he said he had changed his mind when he got to the Paris bar and deliberately disabled his vest because he did not want to kill people “singing and dancing” on a night out.
He said his older brother, whom he had always sought to imitate and impress, had asked him in summer 2015 to collect Islamic State fighters returning to Europe from Syria and bring them to Brussels. Prosecutors dismissed as false his account that he had only been convinced to join the unit two days before the attacks.
Abdeslam’s demeanour changed over the course of the 10-month trial. In April, he apologised to the victims in court and asked them to “hate me with moderation”. In his closing words to the court on Monday, he said he had “evolved”.
He referred to his prison conditions in solitary confinement, saying it had been a “shock” at first to be confronted by so many people in court. But he now felt “calmed” because he had managed to find a “semblance” of “social life” by being brought from his cell into court.
“I’ve made mistakes, but I’m not an assassin. I’m not a killer. If you convict me for murder, you will be committing an injustice,” Abdeslam told the court this week.
“My first words are for the victims. I have already said sorry. Some will say my apologies are insincere, that it is a strategy … more than 130 dead, more than 400 victims, who can apologise insincerely for so much suffering?”
During closing arguments on Monday, Abdelslam’s lawyer Olivia Ronen told the judges her client was the only one in the group who did not set off explosives to kill others that night. He cannot be convicted for murder, she argued. Abdeslam had told the court he was “not a danger to society”.
Prosecutors had argued that a full life sentence was justified, saying Abdeslam’s rehabilitation back into society seemed impossible because of his “deadly ideology”.
During the trial, Abdeslam was asked by one lawyer how he would like to be remembered. “I don’t want to be remembered,” he said. “I want to be forgotten forever. I didn’t chose to be the person I am today.”