PARIS — More than five years after a French-Algerian extremist killed three children and a teacher at a Jewish school and three soldiers in a shooting rampage, emotions still proved raw on the first day of a trial of two men accused of helping him.
The 23-year-old gunman, Mohammed Merah, died days after the March 2012 killings in the southern Toulouse region, following a 32-hour televised standoff with France’s police special forces.
His older brother and main defendant, Abdelkader Merah, who is accused of complicity in the killings, appeared before professional magistrates Monday. The trial — the first time any charges in the attacks have reached court — is expected to last a month.
Abdelkader Merah, also a double French and Algerian national, entered the courtroom dressed all in white, with a long black beard and a bushy ponytail. He faces up to life in prison if convicted. A verdict is expected in early November.
The 35 year-old has been in custody since days after the Toulouse killings. He has denied helping his brother to prepare for or perpetrate the killings.
The deadly rampage was to mark the start of an era of homegrown jihadi violence in France. The period since the 2012 attacks has seen an upsurge in deadly attacks in France, many of them carried out by young people born and radicalized in the country.
Emotions were high among both sides inside and outside the courtroom despite a mainly procedural opening hearing. Samuel Sandler, whose 30-year old son Jonathan and his grandchildren Gabriel, 3, and Arie, 5, were killed at the Jewish school, insulted the mother of the Merah brothers, Zoulika Aziri, as she took the stand.
“These are rotten people who rot in a hole,” Sandler told reporters just before the trial started.
Aziri, also on edge, made a passionate plea when leaving the courtroom, saying “Islam is about peace, not about killing people,” that she “disagreed with what (Mohammed) did” but that her son Abdelkader “had nothing to do with that.”
“The truth, I cry for my son, I cry for the victims, for the families, the girls, the boys, for the people who died, but for Abdelkader, I’m sorry,” the mother told reporters.
Footage from the GoPro camera Mohammed Merah was wearing when he shot his victims over nine days showed he was the sole perpetrator. All the witnesses also mentioned a single killer driving a powerful scooter, wearing a black motorcycle jacket and a helmet with a lowered visor.
But investigative judges said they gathered enough evidence to try Abdelkader Merah, who had been on intelligence radars since 2006 for proximity to radical cells, as his brother’s accomplice.
Merah’s defense lawyer, Eric Dupond-Moretti, has said his client was sent to trial “by default” because the actual killer was dead.
“There is no evidence in the case file to convict him. That’s what I think, that’s what I’ll say,” Dupond-Moretti told BFM TV in February. The lawyer refused to give interviews as the trial neared and started.
The investigators have described Abdelkader as his younger brother’s religious mentor on the path of radical Salafist Islam. The elder Merah has denied this, and said he condemned his killings, but also told an investigating judge he was “proud of the way he died, as a fighter, that’s what the Quran teaches us,” according to court documents obtained by The Associated Press.
“Assuming that he has contaminated his brother, it does not make a complicity in murders,” defense lawyer Dupond-Moretti said a few months after the March 2012 slayings. “Are we innocent or guilty of being brothers?”
Alongside Abdelkader Merah in the defendants’ dock is an acquaintance of the two brothers, Fettah Malki. He is accused of providing weapons that Mohammed Merah used. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Malki has maintained he was unaware of his friend’s deadly plot.
Djemaa Legouad, mother of Mohamed Legouad, one of the slain soldiers, told reporters outside the courtroom she’s just awaiting the truth. “That’s all I want, to be able to mourn. That’s all I want,” she said.
Nicolas Garriga and Jeffrey Schaeffer contributed to the report.