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The trial begins for the murder of a French priest slit by Islamists

The French flag pays tribute to the Catholic priest Jacques Hamel at the entrance of the Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray church. / Reuters

The defendants, alleged accomplices of the jihadists killed in 2016, could serve a sentence of up to twenty years in prison

Almost six years after the murder of the Catholic priest Jacques Hamel, whose throat was cut in 2016 by two Islamists while he was officiating a mass in a French church, the trial began this Monday in Paris with the alleged accomplices of the jihadists sitting on the bench of the accused. The perpetrators, Abdel Kermiche and Abdel-Malik Petitjean, were killed by police shortly after the attack. Kermiche and Petitjean, 19, said they belonged to the Islamic State, according to witnesses.

The trial should clarify the circumstances that led Kermiche and Petitjean to commit this crime and the process of their jihadist radicalization. What Dominique Lebrun, Archbishop of Rouen, expects from this trial is that “justice be done” and that many questions still remain unanswered: “Are the accused guilty? What really happened? Was Father Hamel a particular target? Did she know one of his killers or not? Could this death have been prevented?” the archbishop asked in statements to KTOTV, the Catholic television channel, two weeks before the start of the trial.

His alleged accomplices sit in the dock: Jean-Philippe Jean-Louis, Farid Khelil and Yassin Sabaihia, accused of “associating criminals with criminal terrorist purposes.” A fourth defendant, the French jihadist Rachid Kassim, will be tried in absentia. It is believed that Kassim was the instigator of the attack and that he was killed in a bombing in Iraq in 2017.

The trial is scheduled to end on March 11. The defendants could face up to twenty years in prison if found guilty. On July 26, 2016, Father Hamel, 85, officiated at Mass in the church of Saint-Étienne-du Rouvray in Normandy (western France). It was summer. That day there were few parishioners, five or six, in the church. During mass, someone knocked on the sacristy door, one of the nuns opened it. Someone wanted to see the priest. She told him to wait until mass was over. Shortly after, the jihadists entered the church and spread terror.

The keys

  • Suspicion
    A fourth person, Rachid Kassim, possible instigator of the attack, will be tried in absentia

  • graphic tests
    They forced one of the parishioners to film the stabbing and beatings with a mobile phone

The priest, whose beatification process as a martyr continues in the Vatican, was assassinated at the foot of the altar. In front of his parishioners, the jihadists mistreated him, cut his throat and stabbed him eighteen times. They forced one of the parishioners, Guy Caponet, to film the whole thing with a mobile phone.

“They started beating him, a lot. They beat him to his knees. They massacred the poor man. He defended himself with his feet, as best he could. I heard him say: ‘Stand back, Satan.’ And then as an order: ‘Go away, Satan.’ Then he finished, because the guy cut his throat », Caponet, 92, recalled in statements to FranceInfo. This parishioner, who was seriously injured in the attack after also being stabbed, survived thanks to playing dead and a nun raising the alarm. The jihadists were killed by the Police outside the church, located on the outskirts of Rouen.

The murder of Father Hamel shocked France in the midst of a wave of jihadist attacks in Europe. “For the first time in more than two centuries, a priest was murdered in France during a mass,” recalled Éric Morain, a lawyer for the National Federation of Victims of Collective Attacks (Fenvac), who appears as a civil party in the trial on Twitter. . It was the “first murder perpetrated by the Islamic State in a church in Europe,” Morain said. “Killing a priest is profaning the Republic,” French President François Hollande said at the time. The objective was to “provoke a war of religions”, then Prime Minister Manuel Valls said after the attack.

Father Hamel’s murder took place in a France still shaken by the jihadist attack in Nice. Twelve days earlier, 86 people died and 458 were injured in a massive hit-and-run on the Paseo de los Ingleses.

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