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18.02.2021 Algeria

Algeria hands death penalty to jihadist in French beheading trial

By Abdelhafid Daamache
A memorial photograph of murdered mountaineer Herve Gourdel in his hometown in France, in this September 2014 picture. ‘Herve Gourdel, come back’, it reads in French.  By Jean-Christophe MAGNENET (AFP/File)
LISTEN FEB 18, 2021
A memorial photograph of murdered mountaineer Herve Gourdel in his hometown in France, in this September 2014 picture. ‘Herve Gourdel, come back’, it reads in French. By Jean-Christophe MAGNENET (AFP/File)

An Algerian court on Thursday sentenced to death a jihadist for the kidnapping and beheading of French mountaineer Herve Gourdel six years ago after a high profile one-day trial.

The 2014 killing in Algeria of Gourdel was claimed by a jihadist faction affiliated to the Islamic State group.

Gourdel, 55, was abducted while exploring the rugged massif in the North African nation's Djurdjura National Park, a draw for hikers, but also long a sanctuary for jihadists.

Three days after he disappeared, gunmen from militant group Jund al-Khilafa -- Arabic for Soldiers of the Caliphate -- published a gruesome video of his murder.

The trial opened on Thursday with 14 defendants, eight of whom were accused of being jihadists and were charged with Gourdel's kidnapping and murder.

However, only one of the eight, Abdelmalek Hamzaoui, is in custody. The other seven were tried and sentenced to death in absentia.

On Thursday, Hamzaoui was brought to court by ambulance in a wheelchair accompanied by a medical team and watched over by police special forces.

Francoise Grandclaude arrives at the Algiers courthouse for the trial in the 2014 kidnapping and beheading of her partner, French mountaineer Herve Gourdel, claimed by a jihadist affiliate of the Islamic State group.  By RYAD KRAMDI (AFP) Francoise Grandclaude arrives at the Algiers courthouse for the trial in the 2014 kidnapping and beheading of her partner, French mountaineer Herve Gourdel, claimed by a jihadist affiliate of the Islamic State group. By RYAD KRAMDI (AFP)

At the request of defence lawyers, the trial opening had been delayed for two weeks due to his ill health.

Questioned by the judge, Hamzaoui had denied having taken part in the abduction and killing of Gourdel, telling the court he was accused only to "close the case and please the French".

Hamzaoui was found guilty and sentenced to death, though there has been a moratorium on executions in Algeria since 1993.

'Still in shock'

Members of Gourdel's family, including his partner Francoise Grandclaude, were in the public gallery.

"I find it very difficult to talk about him (Gourdel), we are still in shock," Grandclaude said. "But I remember that there are a lot of inconsistencies in the words of the main accused."

The Algerian Dar Al-Baida court on Thursday, where the trial of the suspects accused of killing Herve Gourdel is taking place.  By RYAD KRAMDI (AFP) The Algerian Dar Al-Baida court on Thursday, where the trial of the suspects accused of killing Herve Gourdel is taking place. By RYAD KRAMDI (AFP)

Six others also on trial, accused of failing to inform authorities promptly of Gourdel's abduction, were all acquitted, according to an AFP journalist at the court.

Five were Gourdel's climbing companions and spent 14 hours in captivity along with him before being released.

Four of them formally identified Hamzaoui in court as being one of the kidnappers.

"I remember Herve's last look as they were forcibly taking him away," testified Hamza Boukamoum, one of his climbing guides.

"We tried to stop them, but they pushed us back saying: 'You don't care, he's not a Muslim'."

Their lawyers said they also were victims of the kidnapping, while a sixth man, whose car was stolen to transport Gourdel, was also cleared of charges.

Gourdel's murder sparked outrage in both France and Algeria, where it triggered memories of the 1992-2002 civil war between Islamists and the army that left some 200,000 dead.

The murder came in the wake of the Islamic State group's dramatic takeover of northern Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014.

The Algerian village of Ait Sellane, near where the body of Herve Gourdel was found, pictured in January 2015.  By Farouk Batiche (AFP/File) The Algerian village of Ait Sellane, near where the body of Herve Gourdel was found, pictured in January 2015. By Farouk Batiche (AFP/File)

Adventure enthusiast Gourdel had travelled to Algeria at the invitation of his climbing companions to try out a new climb.

His kidnappers demanded an end to air strikes against IS in Iraq and Syria by a US-led coalition that included France.

Paris had rejected their demand.

Gourdel's body was not recovered until January the following year after an operation involving some 3,000 Algerian troops.

His remains were found in a booby-trapped grave.

In February, his partner Grandclaude had welcomed that the trial was "finally taking place".

Saying it was "very personal", she said the process could offer "hope for the families and loved ones of victims affected by terrorism".

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