Three men on trial for deadly 2016 terror attack on French church

Three men are on trial in Paris for the 2016 murder of Father Jacques Hamel which was claimed by the so-called Islamic State group.

The priest was killed on 26 July 2016 by two young jihadists in his church in Saint-Etienne-du Rouvray, just south of Rouen. Adel Kermiche and Abdel-Malik Petitjean were killed by police as they left the small church.

The three men who sat in the box of the special court in Paris on Monday — Jean-Philippe Jean Louis, Farid Khelil and Yassine Sebaihia — are part of the entourage of the attackers.

They are charged with “terrorist criminal conspiracy”, suspected of having been aware of their plans, of having shared their ideology or of having tried to travel to Syria.

A fourth defendant, Rachid Kassim, is to tried in his absence. This French propagandist of the Islamic State group probably died in Iraq in 2017 but was indicted for complicity in the murder of the priest and the attempted murder of a parishioner. He is suspected of having “knowingly encouraged and facilitated the act” of the two jihadists.

‘Never practiced’ Islam

The first to answer the questions of the court, Farid Khelil, 36, said that he had “a lot of trouble” with the facts of which he is accused and which he “disputes”.

In front of the court, he evoked with a smile a path far removed from radical Islam, with his “many girlfriends”, his consumption of cannabis (“I’ve been in withdrawal for 24 years”) or his trips to the Netherlands and Germany “for the brothels”.

Long hair tied in a ponytail, small glasses and a grey jumper, Khelil also described himself as a child and evoked a “lack of affection” after his parents’ divorce. He described his “French-style” education by the daughter of Harkis and the “injustice” he felt after a redundancy in 2015.

He went to the mosque for a while to reconnect with his father, then frequented his cousin Abdel-Malik Petitjean who introduced him to prayer and showed him propaganda videos to “sensitise” him to the plight of the Syrians, but the accused claimed to have “never had” any religious commitment and to have “never practiced”.

After him, Yassine Sebaihia, 27, explained how he turned to religion in 2016.

Failing in his studies for an electrical engineering degree, unemployed, and on the outs with his girlfriend, he felt that he had been “put under a spell” and sought information on the subject via “videos on the internet”.

The curly-haired young man said he may be “naive” but that he has “never had friends who committed crimes”.

He is being prosecuted for briefly joining the two jihadists in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray on 24 July, before leaving the next day. He has always maintained that he had no knowledge of their plans for violent action.

The third defendant, Jean-Philippe Jean Louis, is to be heard by the court on Tuesday.

‘Justice be done’

All three have been in custody for five years and are facing thirty years in prison.

Even before the start of the hearing, the civil parties expressed the wish to “understand”.

Guy Coponet, a parishioner, was seriously injured by the two jihadists and wished “that justice be done”. He “wants to understand (…) how young people just out of adolescence have come to commit such horrors”, his lawyer, Mehana Mouhou, explained to AFP.

One of Father Hamel’s sisters, Roseline, also expects “the truth (…) about the lack of means” given “to the public forces to prevent this massacre”.

One of the killers, Adel Kermiche, had an electronic bracelet at the time of the attack, after an aborted departure to Syria.

The intelligence department of the Paris police headquarters (DRPP) was also implicated because, according to an article published in 2018 by Mediapart, its investigators had access a week before the assassination to messages from the young man on the encrypted messaging system Telegram where he mentioned an attack in a church.

Four of the five agents of this service, called to testify, are “not psychologically fit to be heard during the trial” having been challenged by this case as well as the 2019 attack in the premises of the police headquarters in Paris, according to medical certificates cited Monday by the president of the court.

The court will decide later if it will waive their hearing.