The trial of 20 men accused of orchestrating and carrying out the November 13, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris that left 130 dead and 350 wounded in a concert hall, outside a football stadium and through a swathe of the city centre opened on Wednesday.
Among the defendants is 31-year-old Salah Abdeslam, who has already been found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in Belgium in relation to a shoot-out that ensued when authorities arrested him in Brussels in 2016.
The Friday night attack at a series of Parisian locales shocked the world, with most of the mayhem aimed at civilians out for a concert, or a drink. Three suicide bombers detonated explosives outside a football stadium where the French and German national teams were playing.
Islamic State claimed responsibility. Many who survived said the attackers threatened to kill them all and noted their ties to Islamist groups.
A special courtroom at the Palace of Justice has been set up for the proceedings, which many in the French media were calling the “Trial of the Century.”
Abdeslam is the only surviving member of the alleged terror cell behind the attacks. Nine perpetrators were killed, either through suicide bombings or at the hands of police officers.
Abdeslam has been charged with offences including murder as part of a terrorist gang, kidnapping and terrorist conspiracy.
In court on Wednesday, Abdeslam sat in a bulletproof box and spoke only very briefly. He confessed to the presiding judge to being an Islamic State member and described it as his profession.
Most of the defendants face life or 20-year sentences. While Abdeslam is the focus, his co-defendants are said to have aided him in various ways, from procuring paperwork to helping him flee France.
Six are being tried in absentia, with five of them believed to have died in Syria since the attacks. One is being detained on terror charges in Turkey.
Prosecutors say 1,765 people have joined the case as plaintiffs: Two days have been set aside to name all of them, meaning the court will only get around to hearing the charges on the third day.
Hundreds of witnesses are expected to be called, including investigators from France and Belgium and former French president Francois Hollande. The trial is expected to last until May 2022.
Five weeks have been set aside to hear testimony from 300 survivors of the attacks, with each allowed half an hour to speak.
Almost 1,000 police officers were mobilized in Paris for the trial’s start on Wednesday. Armed forces secured the cordoned off Palace of Justice. The courtroom has 550 seats, and screens ensure that the proceedings are broadcast to all areas of the courtroom.
If needed, relatives and victims can find psychological support in the courthouse. Overflow rooms showing the trial have also been created for those who do not want to be in the court room or cannot find a seat.
The trial has been one of the main topics of conversation in France for days, with survivors speaking to the media to once again describe their harrowing experiences on that night and the long recovery since.
Yolande Meaud lost her twin daughters Charlotte and Emilie. The 29-year-olds were shot on the terrace of the cafe Carillon.
“I want the hidden truths to come to light and learn if there are weaknesses in the state structures. That’s what I assume,” she told France Bleu radio at the start of the trial. “The trial is one thing, but of course does not end the pain you feel.”