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Paris trial over jihadist murder of French priest in 2016 begins today

Père Jacques Hamel was killed in an Islamist terror attack in a church near Rouen. Four people accused of involvement are standing trial

A photo of Pere Jacques Hamel, in memory of his life after his murder by two Islamic terrorists

Père Hamel was remembered at the Notre Dame Cathedral in 2016, days after he was murdered by two Islamic terrorists Pic: AM113 / Shutterstock

A court case regarding the murder of French priest Père Jacques Hamel is beginning today (February 14) in Paris, six years after the tragic attack in a church near Rouen.

Four men suspected of involvement in and association with the murder are being put on trial before the court la cour d'assises spéciale in Paris.

Among them is the attack’s alleged main instigator, the Islamist propagandist Rachid Kassim – tried in absentia – and three men from his entourage. 

The two perpetrators of the attack were killed by law enforcement officers as they exited the church after the murder took place.

The trial is set to last until March 11.

What happened?

Père Hamel was murdered on July 26, 2016 at the age of 85, in his church in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray (Seine-Maritime) as he was finishing a service. 

Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray is a town of 29,000 people, near Rouen. The church was not busy; only five people were present, mainly because it was a Tuesday during a holiday period. 

A few minutes later, two men aged 19, armed with knives and a handgun, entered the church. They seized Père Hamel and forced him to kneel down, also forcing one of his congregation to film the scene on a mobile phone.

They then stabbed the priest and destroyed parts of the building and religious objects. They justified their actions as revenge for coalition attacks on Syria.

One church member, Sister Danièle, managed to escape and alert the emergency services. Police then surrounded the church.

The attackers left the church at 10:35, using members of the public as human shields. They then ran towards the waiting police, who shot them dead at 10:40. 

The attackers were found to be wearing fake explosive vests, and their gun was inoperative 

Père Hamel was found dead behind the altar. The members of the public all survived.

Four hours later, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

Who were the attackers?

Adel Kermiche

  • 19 years old
  • Known to authorities due to behavioural problems in childhood and adolescence
  • French-Algerian
  • Unemployed
  • Became more radicalised after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in 2015, his mother has said
  • Tried to travel to Syria twice to join Islamic State; both times arrested and questioned
  • At the time of the attack in the church, he was under police surveillance and was wearing an electronic tag
  • He had been assigned residence at his parents’ house in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, which he was only allowed to leave between 08:30 and 12:30 on weekdays
  • Committed the attack during these hours

Abdel-Malik Petitjean

  • 19 years old
  • Originally from Aix-les-Bains (Savoie)
  • Identified and known to anti-terrorist services in the month before the attack, after attempting to travel to Syria
  • Published a video online on July 20, 2016 (six days before the murder) in which he spoke of mounting “a devastating attack” on France
  • In contact with Adel Kermiche via encrypted messaging app Telegram
  • Met up with Mr Kermiche the day after the video was published, “to execute their plan of action”
  • Two days before the murder, recorded a video with Mr Kermiche, pledging allegiance to Islamic State, which was published on Telegram the day after the murder

Who is on trial starting today?

Jean-Philippe Steven Jean-Louis

  • Aged 20 at the time of the attack
  • Attempted to travel to Syria with Abdel-Malik Petitjean a month before the attack
  • The two men met on social media in 2015
  • Brought up in a Christian family; converted to Islam when he was a teenager
  • Inquiries found him to be “very active in the ‘jihadosphere’ and spreading Islamic State propaganda”
  • Allegedly involved in several online crowdfunding drives, including one to help finance the attack on Père Hamel

Farid Khelil

  • Cousin of Abdel-Malik Petitjean
  • 11 years his senior
  • Magistrates found he had a “fascination” with jihadist ideology since the year 2014
  • Accused of knowing how radicalised his cousin had become
  • Stayed at his cousin’s house two weeks prior to the attack
  • Had planned to travel to Syria with Mr Petitjean and Mr Jean-Louis
  • Accused of “wishing to commit a violent act in France”

Yassine Sebaihia

  • Aged 21 at the time of the attack
  • Lived in Toulouse (Haute-Garonne, Occitanie)
  • Arrested at home on August 8, 2016
  • Had been unknown to authorities until then
  • Had spoken with Mr Petitjean and Mr Kermiche via Telegram
  • Met with the attackers in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray two days before the murder
  • After spending one night there, said he returned home feeling “uncomfortable and disappointed”
  • Claims he thought he was there to discuss the setting up of “a religious holiday camp”
  • Claims he had no intention of committing a violent act
  • Denies knowledge of the planned murder or of helping the perpetrators

Rachid Kassim

  • Born in 1987 in Roanne (Loire)
  • Jihadist who travelled to Syria in 2015 with his wife and child
  • Initially fought for Islamic State, then became its media figure and propagandist
  • Also thought to have been a recruiter for Islamic State
  • Accused or found guilty of instigating several Islamic attacks in France, including in Magnanville in June 2016, and the murder in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray
  • Communicated several times with the attackers via Telegram, and the other accused men
  • Accused of inciting Mr Petitjean and Mr Kermiche to carry out the attack
  • Presumed dead in Iraq in 2017

Who is present in court?

Mr Jean-Louis, Mr Khelil, and Mr Sebaihia. 

Mr Kassim is being tried in absentia. He is presumed dead but this has not been proven. He is thought to have been killed in Iraq, after a bombing attack by coalition forces against Islamic State.

US forces declared him to be dead on February 10, 2017, but no formal proof has been found. A warrant against him for his arrest has been in place since August 3, 2016.

Mr Petitjean and Mr Kermiche were killed on the scene, so cannot be tried.

What are the defendants accused of?

Rachid Kassim

  • “Complicity in murder” and “attempted terrorist murder”
  • “Participation in a criminal terrorist organisation”
  • Encouraging the murder
  • Broadcasting a video of allegiance by Mr Petitjean and Mr Kermiche after the murder took place

Jean-Philippe Steven Jean-Louis, Farid Khelil and Yassine Sebaihia

  • “Participation in a criminal terrorist organisation”
  • Believed to have known Mr Petitjean and Mr Kermiche, and that they were planning an attack

Authorities say that even if they may not have participated in the organisation of the attack (although this remains to be ascertained), "precise knowledge of the plan is not required to characterise the offence".

It is "sufficient" simply "to be aware" of its "existence" and that it is "possible to not be aware of its exact aims" and still be found guilty.

They face a sentence of up to 30 years imprisonment.

What have the accused said in their defence so far? 

Lawyer for Mr Jean-Louis, Bérenger Tourné, has said that the three men are being used as scapegoats for the attack, and have been victims of “contradictory claims of links” to the attack. 

He told FranceInfo: “My client never knew anything about this planned attack…which was perpetrated without his help.”

The other defendants admit to knowing Mr Petitjean and Mr Kermiche, but say they were not aware of their plans to commit murder.

Mr Khelil denies having had "any desire to leave for Syria" and having been aware of the "criminal plans of his cousin", his lawyer Simon Clémenceau told FranceInfo.

Witness: ‘Life is a gift’

A witness, 92-year-old Guy Coponet, who was at the church with his now late-wife Janine and was forced to film the attack, said that Père Hamel “was happy” that day, and had been planning to go on holiday with his family shortly after.

He said that the attackers burst into the church and shouted: “Nobody move!”, and that the priest tried to defend himself by kicking and saying: “Away Satan”.

Mr Coponet, who was badly injured in the attack, said that he “played dead” to prevent the attackers from “coming to finish me off.

“You end up thinking about the life that you had before, praying to those to whom you normally pray: the saints. And then, it’s strange, my eyes were filled with a colour that I did not know. It was a blue, but a type of blue that I had never seen. 

“I have never found it elsewhere, that tone of blue. During that moment, I could hear what was going on, the discussions that they were having with the Sisters. In the midst of it all, while talking with the men, Sister Danièle managed to get out and find help. 

“She is my guardian angel.”

Mr Coponet’s wife was one of the people pushed outside as a human shield, but was fortunately saved by a police officer before she could be hurt.

“I heard the noise,” Mr Coponet continued. “I thought that it was someone knocking on the door. Boom, boom. It must have been the shots outside. I was still praying. And then I saw the boot of a police officer who had entered the church.” 

He said: “[The attack] completely changed our lives. It may sound silly, but I’ll say that it made us grow. We saw life differently. My wife died last year, and we loved each other so much. We saw life as a gift.

“They must find those who are really responsible, those who pushed for it, who arranged this massacre. It was those who gave the orders who – in my opinion – completely clouded the judgement of those who did it.”

Despite the trauma of what he went through, Mr Coponet added that: “If you do not forgive, you begin to hate. If you want to sow peace, you must necessarily forgive. It allows you to see people in a new light, to accept things. So yes, you forgive, but [the attack] has really impacted us.”

Priest’s beatification

Père Hamel is now set to be beatified by the Pope. This is an official declaration that a deceased person is “in a state of bliss”, and considered to have died a martyr. It is the first step towards canonisation.

Related articles

Priest murder case: What is a 'leave France' OQTF order? 

Nantes cathedral arson suspect questioned over murder of priest 

Paris teacher killing: What we know about attack

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