The older brother of a French extremist who killed seven people in a series of attacks on a Jewish school and soldiers in Toulouse goes on trial Monday for complicity in the 2012 shooting spree that in retrospect marked the start of an era of homegrown jihadi violence in France.
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The criminal trial of Abdelkader Merah, 35, will be the first time a French court considers charges in the attacks that took the lives of three Jewish children, a teacher and three paratroopers, over nine days in the Toulouse region.
The 23-year-old gunman, Mohammed Merah, died after a 32-hour televised standoff with France’s police special forces. Abdelkader Merah has been in custody since days after the Toulouse killings. He has denied helping his brother, who trained with al-Qaida-linked extremists in Pakistan, to prepare for or perpetuate the deadly rampage.
Defense lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti has said his client, who faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted of “complicity to murders in relation with a terrorist undertaking,” was sent to trial “by default” because the actual killer was dead.
“There is no evidence in the case file to convict him. That’s what I think, that’s what I’ll say,” Dupond-Moretti told BFM TV in February. The lawyer refused to give interviews as the trial neared.
The trial is being held in a special Paris criminal court and heard by judges. It’s expected to last one month with about 50 witnesses and a dozen experts called to the stand. A verdict is expected in early November.
The families of the seven victims, two of whom were Muslim, have awaited the trial for more than five years, a period marked by an upsurge in deadly attacks in France, many of them carried out by young people born and radicalized in the country.
“This trial has to shed light, be clear, that the truth come out, that justice be done, and that it become a part of history,” Latifa Ibn Ziaten, the mother of a French paratrooper who was the first victim, told The Associated Press.
Alongside Abdelkader Merah in the defendant’s dock will be an acquaintance of the two brothers, Fettah Malki. He is accused of providing weapons that Mohammed Merah used and faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Malki has maintained he was unaware of his friend’s deadly plot.
During his standoff with an elite police unit, Mohammed Merah spoke with an intelligence negotiator. He claimed to be acting on behalf of the al-Qaida group, but said he acted alone and that neither his older brother nor anyone else knew of his plans.
Footage from the GoPro camera he was wearing when he shot his victims showed he was the sole perpetrator. All the witnesses mentioned a suspect driving a powerful scooter, wearing a black motorcycle jacket and a helmet with a lowered visor.
But investigative judges said they gathered enough evidence to try Abdelkader Merah, who had been on intelligence radars since 2006 for proximity to radical cells, as his brother’s accomplice.
The judges described Abdelkader as his brother’s religious mentor on the path of a radical Salafist Islam.
He has denied being the source of his brother’s radicalization and said he condemned his killings, but also told an investigating judge he was “proud of the way he died, as a fighter, that’s what the Quran teaches us.”
“Assuming that he has contaminated his brother, it does not make a complicity in murders,” defense lawyer Dupond-Moretti said a few months after the March 2012 slayings. “Are we innocent or guilty of being brothers?”
While the two brothers hadn’t seen each other for months because of a family quarrel, they got back in touch a few weeks before the attacks, Abdelkader told investigators.
He said Mohammed then “told him again about jihad” and that he knew his brother wanted to “move quickly, find a ploy quickly, or pull off jobs in France or abroad,” according to court documents obtained by The Associated Press. Abdelkader said he didn’t approve of his brother’s plans.
The two met several times between the first killing on March 11, 2012 and Mohammed’s death on March 22, including for dinner in Toulouse a few hours after the younger brother killed two soldiers on March 15. Abdelkader told investigators Mohammed was “very kind and affectionate” that night.
Investigators suspect the older brother of choosing the target for Mohammed’s first killing, via an ad posted by a soldier on the internet. Abdelkader is also accused of helping his brother steal the scooter he used for the rampage a few days later and paying for the jacket his brother wore during the attacks.
The Toulouse attacks set the stage for even deadlier Islamic radical violence on French targets in the years to come. At the time, the highly-publicized killings prompted a wave of shock and indignation in France and abroad.
Among the victims were a teacher at the Jewish school, his 3 and 5-year-old sons, and the 8-year-old daughter of the school’s director. All four were shot at point-blank range over 14 seconds. All four are buried in Jerusalem.