Strasbourg terror suspects in court over deadly 2018 Christmas attack

Europe REUTERSChristian Hartmann
FEB 29, 2024 LISTEN
REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

The trial of four men suspected of having played a key role in supplying weapons to the perpetrator of the December 2018 shootings at the Strasbourg Christmas markets began on Thursday, with court hearings set to continue for five weeks.

The men appeared in a special Paris court over the attack in the eastern French city, where a radical Islamist killed five people before being shot dead by police after a 48-hour manhunt.

The market was in full swing on 11 December when Cherif Chekatt – a convicted criminal on the list of possible extremist security risks – opened fire on the crowds, shouting "Allahu Akbar", before escaping in a taxi.

The four are accused of crimes ranging from terrorism to helping to supply weapons, including the 19th-century revolver Chekatt used in the attack.

A fifth defendant, in his mid-80s, may be tried at a later date after a medical examination found his health was not compatible with taking part in the trial.

One direct terrorism charge

Only one suspect, Audrey Mondjehi, faces the maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted on terrorism charges, while the others risk 10 years imprisonment.

Mondjehi, 42, has been directly charged with terrorism, while the three others – all in their 30s – face criminal conspiracy charges for their role in supplying weapons.

According to the court indictment, Mondjehi – once a former cellmate of the assailant – "could not have been unaware of, or may have even shared, all or part of Cherif Chekatt's radical convictions".

His lawyer, however, is concerned Mondjehi could be used as a scapegoat in Chekatt's absence.

Defence lawyer Michael Wacquez said: "Audrey Mondjehi should not be an outlet for the grief of the victims and should not be condemned because Cherif Chekatt is not there."

According to the investigation, there is no evidence that the other suspects had been aware of Chekatt's plans to carry out the Christmas market attack.

Taxi driver's traumatic ordeal

While Chekatt cannot now be brought to justice – having been killed in a police raid in the Neudorf district of central Strasbourg – the trial marks a hugely important moment for survivors and victims' relatives.

Speaking to FranceInfo, taxi driver Mostafa Salhane said the attack turned his "whole life upside down".

"Everything I'd built up over the last few years collapsed like a house of cards," recounted the 53-year-old former taxi driver, who spent 15 terrifying minutes with Chekatt as he climbed into his cab to flee the scene with a gun in hand. 

Salhane was told by the attacker: "If you get smart, I'll light you on fire".

The driver remembers Chekatt claimed responsibility for the attack because of what was happening in Syria and Iraq. "He wanted to make history," he said.

Survivors need to 'turn page'

But for Claude Lienhard, a lawyer for several dozen people, there is a perception the investigation has been dragging on.

"There's a fear that this will be a low-cost trial compared with other terror trials, as many feel they have been forgotten," he said.

One witness who saw Chekatt wound one of her friends said she plans to attend the trial. While the process was "distressing", she said it was important to "turn the page".

Another witness, a retired firefighter who was with one of the victims as they died, said he needed answers "to heal".

"One question keeps coming back to me: how can you kill someone like that?"

Latest in a series of terror trials

The trial is the latest legal process over the wave of Islamist attacks that has hit France since 2015. 

In December 2022, a Paris court convicted all eight suspects in the trial over the 2016 truck attack in the Mediterranean city of Nice that left 86 people dead. 

In the most high-profile case, 20 defendants were convicted in June 2022 over their roles in the November 2015 attack in the French capital, when 130 people were killed.

The Islamic State armed group laid claim to the Strasbourg attack, but the then French interior minister Christophe Castaner maintained the extremist group had not planned the assault and was just taking credit for the attack. 

A video pledging allegiance to the group was subsequently found at the assailant's home.

The trial over the 2018 Strasbourg attacks is expected to last until early April.