Paris-Attack Families May Face 5-Year Wait for Justice

  • Slow-moving French legal system means trial could be far off
  • Belgian-born Abdeslam was only suspect attacker captured alive

After a frantic manhunt and a rapid extradition from Belgium, Salah Abdeslam was helicoptered Wednesday into solitary confinement at a high-security jail outside the French capital.

But legal experts say families of the victims of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks will now have to wait years before the only surviving suspect goes on trial.

“Even in a simple case of armed robbery in a bakery it takes a year to get a verdict,” according to Pascal Jakowlew-Poisson, from the law-enforcement trade union Alternative Police CFDT. Given the complexity of this case, five years could elapse before those responsible for the attacks that left 130 dead in Paris are brought to justice, he said.

At least eight terrorists attacked sites in and around the French capital, shooting at diners in cafes and attacking people attending a concert at a theater in central Paris. Seven of the attackers blew themselves up or were killed by the police.

Wire Taps

Exploiting evidence found in phones and working with wire taps as well as tracing back the funding of the attacks is a time-consuming task given the number of suspects and leads to follow, Jakowlew-Poisson said in an interview.

Belgian-born Abdeslam was supposed to blow himself up but changed his mind at the last minute. He was finally captured last month in a bolt-hole in the notorious Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, days before a terror-cell he was allegedly linked to launched attacks in the city.

His transfer from Belgium paves the way for a trial in France of suspects ranging from members of the terror cell right up to sidekicks such as Jawad Bendaoud, who hosted some of the attackers.

“Everything is long and complicated in this case rather than being a source of appeasement,” said Aline Le Bail-Kremer, who represents a French association for victims of terrorism. “It’s tough for the victims’ families and close ones even though there’s a sense that things could be moving on faster than usual.”

In an extremely rare move, French prosecutors set up a team of five investigative judges to probe the November attacks.

‘Bureaucratic Habits’

“Slowness is part of the DNA of France’s justice system,” according to Sophie Obadia, a lawyer in Paris. “Bureaucratic habits take over once the police has done its work. It all takes for ever. Suspect are interrogated once, twice, three times and then come the witness confrontations.”

The investigative judges will want to draw up an elaborate architecture of the organization -- leadership, funding and operational role -- to the detriment of speed, according to Obadia. “Who needs to know who bought weapon number two or weapon number four?”

“The end result is that rulings are delivered much too long after the facts,” according to Obadia. “The answer comes much too late. It makes no sense. Especially in a context where other terror attacks may take place before any ruling.”

Jewish School

An earlier terror case in the southern city of Toulouse shows the slow-turning wheels of French justice. Mohamed Merah killed three paratroopers, and three children and a teacher at a Jewish school before being shot by the police in March 2012.

Now that investigators have finalized their four-year long probe, it should take another year before his brother Abdelkader Merah, who was charged with complicity in the murders, goes on trial, according to David Apelbaum, a lawyer in Paris.

“In terrorism cases speed is a factor of investigative judges’ desire to shed as much light as possible on the attacks and the victims’ call for speedy justice,” Apelbaum said. The bottom line is that it’s common for these “extremely complex” investigations to last three to four years and you need to wait another year to get a trial date, he said.

Victims of the 1995 bomb attacks in Paris had to wait seven years before convictions were brought in France against members of Algeria’s outlawed Armed Islamic Group.

On the other side of the English Channel, terror trials have moved much quicker.

Two converts to Islam were found guilty less than a year after murdering an off-duty British soldier on a busy London street, in a crime that transfixed the country.

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