Trial of alleged accomplices in jihadist slaying of priest opens in Paris

Fr Jacques Hamel’s grave: The priest was killed before the altar of his church in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, a small town south of Rouen. Photograph: Jean-Francois Monier/AFP

The trial opened on Monday of four alleged accomplices in the slaying of Fr Jacques Hamel, the 86-year-old French priest whose throat was slashed during Mass at the altar of his church in Normandy.

At 9.25am on Tuesday, July 28th, 2016, Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean, 19 year olds of North African Arab origin, entered the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, a small town south of Rouen, armed with a kitchen knife, a handgun and fake explosives belts.

The charge sheet recounts in detail the events that followed.

Petitjean grabbed the priest and forced him to kneel in front of the altar. Kermiche handed a mobile telephone to Guy Coponet, a parishioner who was then aged 87, and ordered him to film the murder. Fr Hamel attempted to fight off the aggressor, who stabbed him several times in the throat and chest. “Get thee away, Satan,” were the priest’s last words.

Petitjean then dragged Coponet to the altar and stabbed him repeatedly. Coponet feigned death. His wife, who witnessed the violence, has since passed away, but Coponet amazed doctors by surviving. One of the three nuns who were in the church escaped and alerted police.

Coponet, now 92, will be a key witness in the trial, which continues until mid-March. When France 2 television interviewed him on the eve of the trial, the old man drew a finger under his chin to show how his own throat was slashed, and indicated where he was stabbed in the arm and back.

Lay bleeding

While Coponet lay bleeding, he heard Kermiche and Petitjean destroying religious symbols inside the church and ranting about the western bombardment of Islamic State, which is also known as Isis. Police had surrounded the church. After holding the women hostage, the killers charged towards police who shot them dead.

Because of the circumstances of his death, Fr Hamel is almost certain to be recognised as a “martyr” and beatified, according to Le Figaro. Beatification usually takes decades, but the 11,496-page dossier submitted in 2019 by the archbishopric of Rouen has been fast-tracked.

Asked about Fr Hamel’s faith, Fr Paul Vigouroux, who assembled the file, quoted Pope Francis: “Sainthood is not about doing extraordinary things but about doing ordinary things with love and faith.”

Isis claimed responsibility for the murder of Fr Hamel a few hours later. Kermiche and Petitjean had been in contact with Frenchman Rachid Kassim, an Isis propagandist, via the encrypted Telegram app. Kassim is believed to have been killed by a US drone strike on Mosul in February 2017 but is listed as a co-defendant because there is no proof of his death.

Kermiche and Petitjean corresponded via Telegram. Petitjean travelled to Kermiche’s home in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray five days before the attack.

Scapegoat claim

In custody for the trial is Jean-Philippe Steven Jean-Louis, a French convert who had attempted to travel to Syria with Petitjean a month before the attack and who is accused of collecting funds for jihadist violence. Farid Khelil is Petitjean’s cousin and he had stayed in the killer’s home two weeks before the attack.

The fourth defendant is Yassine Sebaihia, who communicated with Kermiche and Petitjean via Telegram and travelled to Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, where Kermiche lived, to meet them. Sebaihia claims he wanted to attend “a religious summer camp” to learn more about Islam and returned to Toulouse disappointed.

Lawyers for the co-defendants say they are scapegoats who had no knowledge of the attack. Prosecutors say they knew something was being planned, even if they did not know the details, and maintain that is sufficient to convict them of membership of a terrorist organisation.

The 2015-2017 wave of jihadist attacks will continue to haunt France for months to come. The trial of 14 co-accused in the November 13th, 2015, Bataclan killings continues in the Palais de Justice, just a few metres from the church murder trial.

Perpetrators of extremist attacks are almost always killed in action, so only accomplices are left to be prosecuted. That was the case in the Charlie Hebdo trial last year, and it will again be the case next autumn, at the trial for the killing of 86 people on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, 12 days before Fr Hamel’s murder.