LYON, France — Four men were convicted in Paris Wednesday of terrorist conspiracy after the murder of a Catholic priest in a Normandy church in 2016, an attack claimed by the Islamic State group.
The four were handed sentences of between eight years and life in prison over the attack on Father Jacques Hamel, 85, who was stabbed in his church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray by two 19-year-olds as he finished Mass. Two nuns and an elderly couple were held hostage before the assailants slashed the priest’s throat and seriously injured another elderly churchgoer.
The two attackers, Abdel Malik Petitjean and Adel Kermiche, were killed by police as they left the church. The four men on trial were accused of having helped or encouraged the attack.
The archbishop for the region welcomed the verdict, and the lawyer for the injured man described an unusual spirit of “spirituality” at the trial. Families of victims held hands with the defendants, and the injured man testified that he forgave them, the lawyer said.
Only three defendants were present at the trial, and the other was convicted in absentia.
The three present did not play a role in carrying out the attack, but were part of the attackers’ entourage. During the trial, they asked for forgiveness and admitted that they voluntarily associated with individuals who were preparing to commit terrorist crimes. But they argued that wasn’t enough to mark them as terrorists, too.
Prosecutors disagreed, and the judges found all of them guilty of criminal association with terrorists.
Jean-Philippe Steven Jean-Louis, 25, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for trying to go to Syria with one of the attackers, and for his Islamic proselytism on Telegram.
A cousin of one of the attackers, Farid Khelil, was sentenced to 10 years. Prosecutors said he was informed of the attack plan and that he had supported it. He testified at the trial that he is bisexual, non-religious and spent his time drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis, in an apparent effort to distance himself from the religious extremists.
Yassine Sebaihia was sentenced to eight years, after he had crossed France to join one of the attackers for “religion lessons.”
The biggest punishment was handed to the absent defendant: Rachid Kassim, a Frenchman who was a notorious Islamic State recruiter, was sentenced to life in prison. Kassim, believed to have been killed in a drone strike in 2017 in Iraq, is suspected of having used social media to encourage the attack on the priest. Kassim had already received a life sentence in absentia in 2019 for having ordered a failed attack near Notre Dame Cathedral.
The Archbishop of Rouen said in a statement: “Justice was served. … (the court) had to convict these men for the good of society.”
Lawyer Mehana Mouhou said that at the trial, “No one was there in hate or vengeance.”
It was was one of several trials over a string of Islamic State-related attacks on France. Trial is still underway into the worst of them: the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 which killed 130 people in the Bataclan theater, national stadium and multiple cafes.