Inside the Trial of the ‘Right-hand Man’ Who Aided Paris Hyper Cacher Killer

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This court sketch shows Ali Riza Polat, right, at the Paris courthouse during the sentencing hearing, December 16, 2020.
This court sketch shows Ali Riza Polat, right, at the Paris courthouse during the sentencing hearing, December 16, 2020.Credit: MARIE WILLIAMS - AFP
Shirli Sitbon.
Shirli Sitbon
Paris

PARIS – They had sat opposite each other in Paris’ main courtroom since the trial began in September. In the dock was Ali Riza Polat, charged with aiding and abetting Amédy Coulibaly, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi – the terrorists who attacked the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and Hyper Cacher supermarket, killing 17 people in January 2015. On the other side, in the victims’ families’ section, was Eric Cohen, the father of 22-year-old Yohan Cohen, the first of four men murdered in the kosher store.

Eric Cohen attended every court session, listening to the gruesome description of his son’s death. France’s former anti-terror chief showed CCTV stills in which Coulibaly was seen shooting Yohan, who collapsed into the trolleys.

Witnesses who survived the attack told the court that the store employee lay in agony for hours, with Coulibaly repeatedly threatening to “finish him off” so he would stop moaning. Coulibaly was also seen killing François-Michel Saada, Philippe Braham and Yoav Hattab, the latter shot dead when trying to confront the terrorist. 

“It was my duty to be here from the first to the last day of this trial. I owed it to my son,” Eric Cohen told Haaretz at the end of the trial. “But it was frustrating. I hoped to start understanding why this all happened, but I feel we haven’t learned much.”

On Wednesday, Eric Cohen and Ali Riza Polat were among those in the packed, tense courthouse. The whole country was waiting to hear the ruling in a case that shook the nation – not so much for the attack on the Jewish community, which has happened before in France, but the murder of an entire room of writers and illustrators, which was unprecedented.

Forensic police working outside the Hyper Cacher kosher store near Porte de Vincennes, eastern Paris, after police ended a siege there, killing gunman Amedy Coulibaly, January 9, 2015.Credit: ERIC FEFERBERG - AFP

The presiding judge, Régis de Jorna, read out the sentences for the 14 defendants, which ranged from four years to life in prison. Eleven of the defendants were in the courtroom, while three – including Hayat Boumeddiene, the widow of Coulibaly – had fled to Syria before the first attack commenced on January 7, 2015.

The verdict ended the three-month trial linked to the three days of killings across Paris claimed jointly by the Islamic State group and Al-Qaida. All three terrorists died on January 9: the Kouachi brothers as they confronted the police after being cornered north of Paris, and Coulibaly during the police raid to end the siege at the Hyper Cacher store after he took dozens of people hostage.

Polat received the stiffest sentence among those present. “Ali Riza Polat: 30 years,” Judge de Jorna declared. The 35-year-old defendant, who had often shouted during the trial, was focused and quiet as the verdict was read out. (Boumeddiene received the same sentence in absentia.)

Prosecutors presented Polat as Coulibaly’s right-hand man, the person who helped him set up a network of young offenders who gave him the money to purchase weapons and carry out his attacks.

The French-Turkish national repeatedly denied being involved. “Are you crazy? Me? I’m implicated in terrorism? I’m a scapegoat!” Polat shouted during cross-examination in October. “I didn’t even know the Kouachi brothers, my DNA is on none of the weapons. The accusation is based entirely on false testimonies. I will not go to jail for something I didn’t do!” he raged.

Polat’s lawyer, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, told the media that the case reminded her of the Dreyfus affair, a somewhat tone-deaf comparison in the circumstances. “Innocent people are convicted in this country,” Coutant-Peyre told Haaretz after the verdict was announced. “It makes no difference what the defendants say. The court says: ‘They are not credible.’”

This court sketch made on December 16, 2020, showing Judge Regis de Jorna, center, and the court at the Paris courthouse during the sentencing hearing.Credit: MARIE WILLIAMS - AFP

Coutant-Peyre has often defended terrorists, including her husband Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (aka Carlos the Jackal), who is serving a life sentence for several murders. She said the trial’s goal was not to serve justice, but to offer a sense of closure for the victims and society as a whole.

“Those who are really guilty are not here,” she said. “The people who carried out the attacks were executed! The police shot them dead instead of arresting them. Now that they’re dead, victims’ families and the public want revenge. They want someone to pay. That’s exactly what has happened here.”

Wannabe bank robber

Polat, who has appealed the verdict, conceded that at least one piece of evidence against him was genuine: A munitions list for Kalashnikov rifles, semi-automatic pistols and explosives. The list was found in the garage of Belgian national Metin Karasular, who was convicted of selling weaponry.

“I did write that list to find out how much those weapons cost. But it wasn’t for Coulibaly. I wanted to rob a bank and I never intended to fire those weapons,” Polat told the courtroom.

The five sitting judges decided that those explanations were not credible.

French lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre talking to the media at the Paris courthouse on December 16, 2020, after her client, Ali Riza Polat, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Credit: MARTIN BUREAU - AFP

Several of the accused testified that Polat was part of the weapons supply chain, and that he issued orders on Coulibaly’s behalf. They admitted that they too helped transport or buy arms and matériel used by the terrorists. 

Alongside DNA evidence against some of the defendants and data from their phones and SIM cards, these testimonies helped show how Coulibaly set up a network of people to help him carry out his plans. Some stole cars in order to get money for weaponry, others found gunrunners, transported those firearms, explosives and tasers, or found hideouts.

Polat’s activities after the Hyper Cacher attack were also regarded as suspicious. He fled to Lebanon in the aftermath and tried, and failed, to enter Syria. “I didn’t try to go to Syria. I was going to Damascus!” Polat shouted in court. “I panicked because I knew the police would arrest me because I was Coulibaly’s friend, even though I had nothing to do with his actions. I knew Damascus didn’t have diplomatic relations with France, and that [Syrian President] Bashar Assad’s authorities would not extradite me.”

Conspiracy theories

Much of the trial consisted of determining whether the accused knew of Coulibaly’s plans while they associated with him. The prosecution and victims’ family lawyers tried to prove that the defendants also had extremist views. This was no easy task, since the accused didn’t outwardly project a radical image in court and asking about their beliefs sometimes felt like prying into their personal lives.

“Alleged radicalization is important here because this is a terrorism trial, with horrific crimes carried out by radicalized people pushing for violent jihad in France. In their view, they acted in the name of religion,” said lawyer Elie Korchia, representing Hyper Cacher cashier Zarie Sibony.

Jewish men praying in front of the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris prior to its reopening on March 15, 2015.Credit: AFP

“The defense strategy, including Ali Riza Polat’s, is to say the defendants knew Amédy Coulibaly, and some of them admit they were close friends with him. But they said they couldn’t have imagined that he would carry out terrorist attacks. If they helped Coulibaly in any way to get weapons or money, then the fact they were radicalized or the fact they could have known Coulibaly was radicalized or was capable of committing terrorist acts is crucial,” Korchia said.  

The judges ruled that four of the 11 defendants in court knew of Coulibaly’s terrorist intentions, and therefore gave them stiffer sentences – from 13 to 30 years. Those who were judged not to know him, or didn’t know him well, got lighter prison sentences – under 10 years – for taking part in criminal activities.

“I find this shocking. Two or three of the defendants got stiff sentences, but the others could be out tomorrow,” Eric Cohen told Haaretz. “What kind of message does this ruling send? Light sentences can encourage other people to do the same tomorrow.”

Conspiracy theories also played a role in the trial. Polat and his lawyer repeatedly argued that those responsible for the allegations were not in court. People like Claude Hermant, an arms smuggler and police informant who imported weapons, including some of Coulibaly’s firearms, from Eastern Europe. Hermant was convicted in a separate trial for gunrunning and has already been released.

Polat also pointed a finger at the police, saying they had watched Hermant import and sell the weapons, but then lost track of them.

Some defendants also argued that had French intelligence officers not dropped their surveillance of Coulibaly, none of the attacks would have happened.

Eric Cohen voiced his disappointment throughout about the trial, but some lawyers representing victims’ families were satisfied with the trial and verdict.

This combination shows Hayat Boumeddiene, left, and her husband Amedy Coulibaly. He murdered five people on January 8 and 9, 2015, including four Jews at the Hyper Cacher kosher store in Paris. Credit: AFP

“The court has heard us,” said Patrick Klugman, a lawyer representing survivors of the Hyper Cacher attack. “The sentencing sends a message: no one can aid terrorists without being held responsible.

“The court has also showed us that there was antisemitism all over those attacks,” he continued. “Not only in the kosher supermarket attack, but also in Montrouge.”

The lawyer was referring to Coulibaly’s first attack, on January 8, when he murdered a policewoman, Clarissa Jean-Philippe, and injured several people near a Jewish school and synagogue in the southern Parisian suburb.

“The murder of Clarissa Jean-Philippe is likely related to an attack that was planned against a synagogue,” said Judge de Jorna. “Amédy Coulibaly was right near the site as school was set to start that morning. He attacked the kosher supermarket the next day and asked if his victims were Jewish before killing them. It’s plausible that he planned to attack that synagogue,” the judge said.

Local and national officials never addressed that hypothesis, but local Jews were certain they were the intended target of the attack. Some say that if the authorities had acted more quickly, Coulibaly could have been stopped before the store attack took place the next day.

“The authorities identified Coulibaly after that first attack in Montrouge, but they didn’t show his picture in time so he could be arrested,” charged criminal lawyer Muriel Ouaknine-Melki, who heads a Jewish group of attorneys who call themselves the European Jewish Organization (OJE in French).

Meanwhile, the dead policewoman’s mother, Marie Jean-Philippe, said that families have hailed her daughter a hero. “I have lost my daughter but those families have been there, thanking me and saying Clarissa saved their children,” she said.

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