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Charlie Hebdo trial — will justice bring relief?

September 2, 2020

It's been over five years since the attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish supermarket Hypercacher in Paris. The long-awaited trial might bring relatives and friends some sense of normality.

Charlie Hebdo Memorial in Paris
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Lp/M. De Martignac

Georges Wolinksi is still omnipresent in the apartment of his wife, Maryse. There are photos of the two of them on the walls and shelves and post-its by him everywhere that read "Good night, my love" and "I love you, Maryse, you're the only one I love." Five years after terrorists killed the cartoonist during the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Maryse is still haunted by the memories.

"My life got turned upside down — it's his absence, the absence of his gaze, that had accompanied me for 47 years," she said. "This absence has made me ill with cancer. And I have regular nightmares. In some of them, I become my husband and live through his last moments facing the Kalashnikov."

A post-it on a wall
Maryse Wolinski hopes that the trial will provide her with more answers about her husband's last momentsImage: DW/L. Louis

Seventeen people died during the attacks in January 2015. First, Cherif and Said Kouachi fired their Kalashnikov rifles at Charlie Hebdo's newsroom; then they spent several days on the run. Their accomplice took 19 hostages at the Jewish supermarket Hypercacher. The police eventually killed all three assailants. Now, 14 people accused of providing logistical support such as cars and weapons to the attackers are in the dock. They could face between 10 years and life in prison. The hearings, which contrary to the norm in France will be recorded, are expected to run until November 10.

Read moreLife after the Charlie Hebdo attack

They became a target because they mocked the Prophet

Maryse is one of the plaintiffs in the trial that started on Wednesday. She hopes the hearings will provide her with some answers. "I need to understand as well as possible what was in the mind of his assassin, Cherif Kouachi," she explained. "It's like any additional information could help me get closer to what my husband went through the moment he got killed."

The magazine was targeted because it had repeatedly mocked the Prophet Muhammad. This attack on the freedom of the press triggered a worldwide backlash. Millions of people took to the streets of Paris a few days later in a show of unity and the slogan "Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie) went global.

And yet, since the January 2015 attacks, the pressure on press freedom has increased in France particularly with the rise of populist politics and an increasing distrust of the traditional media. A recent survey by polling institute Kantar on behalf of daily newspaper La Croix found that 41% of the French are no longer interested in the information provided by traditional media. That's a record since the yearly poll was first carried out 33 years ago.

Read moreTwo years after the Charlie Hebdo attack, freedom of expression remains an issue

The internet 'has made things worse'

Graffiti of those killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo
Charlie Hebdo has plowed on undeterred and still receives death threatsImage: DW/L. Louis

Charlie Hebdo kept publishing, even right after the attack. It's now continuing its activities from a secret, heavily guarded location. The magazine still regularly receives threats. Its editor-in-chief Gerard Biard said the internet has made things worse. "Nowadays, when people read critical comments on social media, they immediately take them personally," he said. "They reply and threaten you in a very violent way.  But satire and press cartoons are not supposed to please. They are supposed to be critical, upset people and be thought-provoking. That cartoon culture is increasingly getting lost."

Read moreCharlie Hebdo and the demise of caricature

About half of today's journalists and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo are new members of the staff. Some of the old guard have since left, like Zineb El Rhazoui. She wasn't at the newsroom when the attack happened — just like Biard. El Rhazoui stills works as a journalist and calls herself an "activist for secularism." But that fight against radical Islam is getting ever more difficult, she said. El Rhazoui is also under constant police protection.

"We thought at the time we had hit rock-bottom, but that wasn't the case," she stated. "Afterwards came the horrible attacks at the Bataclan music hall, the one in Nice in 2016 and numerous others with people yelling 'Allahu Akbar.' Since 2015, things really have gotten worse. Radical Islamists have become more and more uninhibited in propagating their views."

The trial of an ideology?

For El Rhazoui, the court case also has a symbolic meaning. "I hope that this will be the trial of an ideology that has killed our friends," she said. "This view is now so well established and hides behind the freedom of expression to spread its oppressive ideas. And we are hoping that justice will help us mourn this crime."

Paris-based Lawyer Marie Dose appreciates how important the court case is for the victims and relatives. She represents one of those on trial who is suspected of having provided weapons for the attackers and could face up to 20 years in prison. "I understand that the hearing will help the bereaved express their sorrow and our country come to terms with this terrible attack," she said.

"But let's keep in mind who the real enemy is — or do you really think the attackers would tell anybody about their plans? The accused weren't privy to the plot. They are almost crumbling under the accusations. It's as if they were the attackers — and not the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly [the supermarket attacker — the ed.]."

A woman standing next to a bookshelf
Maryse Wolinski hopes that the trial will bring some form of closureImage: DW/L. Louis

Maryse Wolinski hopes the court case will bring her one tiny step closer to some kind of normality. Just like the three books she has published on the attack. The latest, "Au risque de la vie," ("At the risk of my life") talks about how difficult the past five years have been for her. 

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