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Survivors of the November 13 Paris attacks to testify at landmark French trial

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From Tuesday onwards, it is the victims’ turn to speak. Some 300 people will give testimony in court over the course of five weeks to recount the horrors they lived through during the terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015. 

Since the start of the trial, the thunderous voice of the accused, Salah Abdelslam, has repeatedly echoed through the courtroom. Now the survivors have a chance to make their voices heard. After testimony from investigators, some 300 victims of the attacks (out of the 1,800 civil parties) will take the stand.

Some 15 people a day will try to put what they lived through into words: First, those who were in and around the Stade de France will testify, followed by those who were on the café and restaurant terraces that were targeted. Finally, those who were at the Bataclan music venue will describe what happened that night. 

>> November 2015 attacks: A timeline of the night that shook the French capital

The survivors will receive psychological and material support from advocacy associations as they relive their ordeals. Psychologists in high-visibility vests will be a constant presence in the special 550-seat courtroom set up for the trial.

Victims will each have an hour and a half to tell their stories. It will be a difficult task, and advocacy associations have spent long hours helping them prepare. 

“Our first meetings with victims date back to before the pandemic,” said Philippe Duperron, the president of victims’ advocacy group 13onze15 – Fraternité et vérité (Brotherhood and Truth), which has 400 members. “The victims have received psychological support and we have helped them prepare to testify. It’s a delicate exercise that takes a lot of preparation. It is quite daunting to find yourself testifying in front of a courtroom with all eyes on you  including those of the accused – and it’s difficult to keep your emotions under control so that you can speak.”

First and foremost, “we had to call for victims to approach us and then we had to evaluate their state of mind”, explained Marie-Claude Desjeux, president of the national federation for the victims of terrorist attacks and mass accidents (Fenvac), when she spoke to FRANCE 24.  

The organisation Paris Aide aux victimes (known as PAV75) has a similar process, director Carole Damiani told FRANCE 24. “First we have to send a questionnaire to evaluate the needs of the victims, then we organised meetings and consultations and we had someone on duty all summer.” 

Support groups 

Support groups are central to the work of most of the victims’ associations.

“These groups are the first place where the victims get to express themselves in front of other people who they’ve never met before,” explained the president of 13onze15. “The specific workshops are offered to give advice on how the court functions: what role the various parties play, their place in the courtroom, details about procedure.”

Over the course of the summer, victims also visited the special courtroom that was set up for the trial.

“Prior visits are very important, as they help lower anxiety levels,” said Duperron of 13onze15. “The more familiar you are with the place, the easier it is to speak freely.”

>> Paris attacks of 2015: The logistics behind a historic trial

Inside the special courtroom built for the 2015 Paris attacks trial

At each preparatory meeting, there were a lot of questions. “Will my testimony put me at risk? Could it put my loved ones in danger? We get all sorts of questions,” explained Damiani.

“Others want to know how long they’ll speak, what they will have to talk about, if they can say yes or no,” said Duperron. We do not really give specific instructions but we try to reassure the victims so they are as relaxed as possible when they testify.” 

Facing the court – and the press 

Several witnesses are still unsure whether they wish to speak at all, be it in court or before the large contingent of French and international journalists covering the trial. Some 141 media organisations have been granted accreditation for the trial.

“The given number of 300 victims being willing to testify is merely an estimate,” said PAV75’s Damiani, noting that many were still hesitant. “Such hesitations are perfectly normal; this is not easy for them,” she added.

The court has also been at pains to protect the plaintiffs and the relatives who do not wish to be disturbed by the media organisations covering the trial. Those willing to speak to the press carry a green badge while others have a red one.

“In the end, the court chose to give each plaintiff both colours, should they change their mind as the trial progresses,” said Duperron. “I think it’s an excellent idea.”

“One can only applaud the level of care being afforded to the victims,” Duperron said. “There can be no excess of caution when dealing with such pain.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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