11 July 2024

(AFP) – A French court will issue verdicts Tuesday for eight suspects charged in the harrowing 2016 terror attack in Nice, where an allegedly radicalised Islamist attacker is accused of ploughing his truck into a crowd celebrating the July 14 national holiday.

Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian resident, killed 86 people and injured over 450 after speeding onto a seaside embankment in the southern city, rampaging for four minutes before being shot dead by police.

Prosecutors are seeking 15-year prison terms against three suspects on charges of association with terrorists.

Ramzi Arefa, who has admitted to providing Lahouaiej-Bouhlel with a gun that he fired at police without hitting anyone, faces charges relating to supplying the weapon.

He is not thought to have been aware of the attacker’s radicalisation.

“I’m guilty of selling a weapon, without thinking about it, and since then it’s been six years that I haven’t stopped thinking about it,” Arefa told the court in his closing statement Monday.

But two others, Mohamed Ghraieb and Chokri Chafroud, allegedly knew about the attacker’s turn to Islamist radicalism and his potential to carry out a terror attack, based on records of phone calls and text messages among the three in the days ahead of the massacre.

Ghraieb, a 47-year-old from the same Tunisian town as Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, and Chafroud are also accused of helping him rent the delivery truck. They have denied the charges.

“I am not a terrorist, I had nothing to do with what happened,” Ghraieb said Monday, while Chafroud, 43 and also Tunisian, declined to address the court.

Prosecutor Jean-Michel Bourles had argued however that “there can be no doubt: They acted in full awareness of his discourse and his fascination, his proximity with the Islamic State.”

The Islamic State group later claimed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel as one of its followers, though investigators have not found any links between the attacker and the jihadists who at the time controlled swathes of Iraq and Syria.

– Night of horror –

Five other suspects, a Tunisian and four Albanians, are charged with weapons trafficking and criminal conspiracy but without any terrorism link.

But Brahim Tritrou is being tried in absentia after fleeing judicial supervision to Tunisia, where he is now believed to be under arrest.

Some 30,000 people had gathered on the Nice seafront to watch a fireworks display celebrating France’s annual Bastille Day holiday on July 14 when Lahouaiej-Bouhlel began his rampage.

According to French and Tunisian press reports, his body was repatriated to Tunisia in 2017 and buried in his hometown of M’saken, south of Tunis. This has never been confirmed by the Tunisian authorities.

France has been buffeted by a wave of Islamist terror attacks since the killings at the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a Jewish supermarket in Paris in January 2015, often by “lone wolf” attackers acting in the name of IS or other jihadist groups.

In October, a Paris appeals court upheld the life sentence of Ali Riza Polat, accused of helping to find the weapons for the Charlie Hebdo attackers.

The Nice trial is taking place at the historic Palais de Justice in Paris, in the same purpose-built courtroom that hosted the hearings over the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead.

A special venue has also been set up in Nice to allow victims to follow proceedings via a live broadcast.

For many of the victims, the sentences sought by prosecutors fail to match the scope of the suffering.

During the trial, many of the survivors gasped in horror when prosecutors showed grisly video footage, never seen publicly, of the vehicle as Lahouaiej-Bouhlel swerved through the crowd, trying to mow down as many people as possible.

“I hope the court will be more severe than they’ve asked — I cannot understand them after all that’s been said in the hearings,” said Anne Murris, president of the Memorial des Anges victims’ association, who lost her daughter in the attack.