Paris terror trial verdict is part of healing
For nearly 10 months, the area around the Justice Palace in central Paris has resembled a high-security zone, surrounded by metal fencing and guarded by hundreds of police officers in riot gear, police vans lined up in front of the building.
Inside, a court was judging 20 people — six of them in absentia — on charges of participating in or facilitating France's worst terror attacks since the end of World War II.
On November 13, 2015, a terror commando killed 130 people in coordinated attacks on a football stadium, bars and restaurants and the Bataclan concert hall.
The assaults left behind a battlefield and thousands of deeply traumatized survivors, some of them badly injured, and family members. More than 2,000 of them have been civil plaintiffs in the court case, the verdict of which is expected on Wednesday. It could mark an important step for survivors — and for France.
Becoming an active part of the trial
David Fritz Goeppinger is one of the civil plaintiffs.
"I didn't expect anything from the court case, but now I am really happy to have played an active role in it," he told DW in the hallway just outside the courtroom.
The wood-paneled courtroom was specially built for the largest criminal trial in France's history, at a cost of some €8 million ($8.5 million). The mammoth court case has been filmed for the archives, like only 12 other trials in French history.
Throughout the trial, 30-year-old Fritz Goeppinger wrote an online diary on the news website France Info and published one photo per day. The photographer was also among the more than 300 civil plaintiffs who testified in court.
On that night in November 2015, Fritz Goeppinger was in the crowd of roughly 1,500 people at the Bataclan, attending a concert by American rock band Eagles of Death Metal.
'Like queuing at the doors of hell'
When the three terrorists began their killing spree inside the music hall, Fritz Goeppinger tried to escape through a window. But he was stopped by one of the attackers, who took him as a hostage in a room upstairs, together with 20 other people.
"It felt like I was queuing at the doors of hell," the Franco-Chilean described the hours spent in captivity when he was speaking in front of the court last October.
Standing in the courtroom with his long, dark hair, dressed in black trousers and a black-and-white plaid shirt, Fritz Goeppinger seemed perfectly self-composed. Only his words showed how deeply scarred he was by what he had gone through.
"I told myself this is were I am going to die. And so I started to pray — to pass away in a dignified way," he said.
"When the police moved in to free us, we all thought — no, don't, this will be the end of us all. Then, someone grabbed me and threw me down a corridor. I stood up and thought 'Oh my God, I'm alive.'"
Miraculously, no hostage or police officer was killed or severely injured during that high-risk rescue mission.
Establishing the truth
"It was really important for me to give my version of what happened that night. It's a form of establishing the truth that's part of my healing process," explained Fritz Goeppinger, who still sometimes has nightmares of the events.
Establishing the truth has been at least as crucial for police officer Michel Caboche. It was only during the trial that the general public learned what role he played during the attack.
While Fritz Goeppinger was trying to hold out upstairs, Caboche and his colleagues from the anti-crime brigade BAC75N were the first police forces to arrive on the scene.
"When we entered the Bataclan, the result of a massacre was in front of our eyes," Caboche told DW. "There were dead bodies everywhere, a smell of blood and gunpowder in the air and pools of blood covering the floor."
Over the next few hours, the officers evacuated all the injured from the Bataclan. "But after that, special forces told us to go direct the traffic — even though we were covered in blood," Caboche said.
Just like other police officers deployed that night, Caboche and his colleagues were deeply shocked by what they had gone through. And yet, their superiors pretended they had never been at the Bataclan that night.
No mention in official report
"We just weren't mentioned in official reports or the judicial investigation ahead of the court case, and when I started to talk about what we had done that night I was called a liar. I was blacklisted and no longer promoted," he said.
Up until now, no official explanation has been given for the omission. At least now, the testimonies during the trial will rectify the records.
The court has also heard the other side of the story during the trial. Among the 20 defendants are the alleged ringleaders, believed dead, accused of managing the international cell of terrorist organization "Islamic State" (IS), which claimed responsibility for the attacks. Other men in the dock allegedly provided weapons and papers to the terrorists, with one of them found to be in Paris the day before the attacks. Prosecutors have asked for life sentences for 10 of the accused.
Only one of the accused, Salah Abdeslam, was in the French capital on November 13, together with the other nine attackers. Abdeslam didn't trigger his suicide belt — which experts have said was faulty — and fled back to Belgium.
Abdeslam became one of the focal points of the trial with his conflicting statements, first declaring himself "a fighter of IS" and later asking victims and survivors for forgiveness.
Terrorism 'doesn't produce any heroes'
But for Arthur Denouveaux, another survivor of the Bataclan attack and head of victims association Life For Paris, it's not that important what Abdeslam said in court. "The crucial thing is that he talked. Now, the court can make up its mind and justice can be done," Denouveaux told DW.
For him, the trial is France's democratic answer to the atrocious terror attacks of November 13, 2015.
"This has shown that our country's legislation is sound enough to judge what happened that night and that terrorism is a dead end and doesn't produce any heroes. That might seem obvious, but some youngsters are still attracted to Islamic terrorism. I hope that this will make everybody understand that there is no future in terrorism and such attacks need to stop," he said.
What's more, the verdict — whatever its severity — could ring in a new stage for survivors like him.
"Maybe afterwards, we survivors will one day be able to no longer see ourselves as victims and move on with our lives," he said.
No trust in French authorities
Caboche agrees that the court case is part of the country's healing process, and his own. But the relation of trust he used to have with French authorities seems to have broken down for good.
Ever since that day in November 2015, he has frenetically participated in all sorts of security training sessions.
"I needed to understand how certain errors in how we proceeded that night could be prevented during possible future attacks," he said, after giving an anti-terrorism seminar to private security personnel in southern Paris. And he's likely to give many more such classes in the future.
"I have decided, with a heavy heart, to leave the job of policeman behind, although it's always been my dream job. I've realized how difficult it is to make this huge system change," he said.
The 41-year-old has set up several consulting firms and a private security company.
"I want to make sure people are more vigilant than ever and that something like that can never happen again."
Yet Fritz Goeppinger is convinced terrorism won't win. At the end of his testimony in court last October, he quoted from the last speech made by former Chilean President Salvador Allende before the coup by dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1973.
"History doesn't stop — neither with repression, nor with crime," said Fritz Goeppinger in the courtroom. "Humanity advances toward the conquest of a better life."
Edited by: Andreas Illmer