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France: Trial for Jihadist Assassination of Fr. Jacques Hamel Begins by Robert Semonsen

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France: Trial for Jihadist Assassination of Fr. Jacques Hamel Begins

Opening arguments have been heard in the trial of four individuals believed to have been involved in the murder of Father Jacques Hamel, an 85-year-old Catholic priest whose throat was slit by two Islamic terrorists while celebrating Mass at a church in northwest France in 2016.

On Monday, judges presiding over the Assize Court in Paris heard arguments for and against Rachid Kassim, Farid Khelil, Yassine Sebaihia, and Jean-Philippe, the alleged accomplices of the Islamic State assassins, Adel Kermiche and Abdel-Malik Petitjean, who on July 26, 2016, murdered Father Hamel after he delivered a sermon at his church in Normandy, the Paris-based Le Figaro reports.

The killing, which saw Father Hamel stabbed to death in front of three nuns and a handful of church parishioners, was the first time in more than 200 years of French history that a priest was murdered during a mass. It was also the first murder carried out by the Islamic State in a church in Europe. 

Lawyers say Father Hamel’s two sisters were present at court to understand “who the perpetrators of the act were,” to comprehend “their motivations,” and to grasp why their brother had been designated as the target.

While Rachid Kassim—the IS recruiter and propagandist who is accused of having “knowingly encouraged and facilitated” the murder—is being tried in absentia, as he’s presumed to have been killed in a U.S. drone strike in Mosul in 2017, the other three members of the assailants’ jihadist clique, were present in the Parisian court.

The present defendants, all of whom are of military age, face “terrorist criminal conspiracy” charges and are accused of having been aware of the plans to murder Father Hamal, sharing their extremist ideology, and attempting to reach Syria to join IS. Among other things, the court heard that the three were in regular contact with Kassim via encrypted messaging apps, where he would give them advice and instructions on how to carry out terrorist attacks on French soil.

As the prosecution put it, the three who appeared in the courtroom dock are from the “family, friends, or telephone entourage” of the two Islamist murderers.

The first defendant, Jean-Philippe Jean Louis, a 25-year-old Islam convert, is said to have been “very active in the ‘jihadosphere’ and spreading Islamic State propaganda.” Before the murder in 2016, he traveled to Turkey with Abdel-Malik Petitjean in an apparent attempt to reach Syria to join IS fighters. He’s also alleged to have been involved in a series of terrorist crowdfunding drives, including one that helped finance the murder of Father Jacques Hamel.

Prosecutors characterized the second defendant, 36-year-old Farid Khelil, the cousin of Abdel-Malik Petitjean, as having a long-held fascination for ‘jihadist ideology,’ calling him an avid consumer of Islamic State propaganda. He’s accused of knowing the degree to which his cousin had been radicalized and of “wishing to commit a violent act in France.”

Like the others, the third defendant, 27-year-old Yassine Sabaihia, had previously corresponded with Petitjean and Kermiche via encrypted messaging services. Despite having met with the two attackers just days before they carried out the murder, she denies having knowledge of the planned murder or have assisting the perpetrators.

In a press release published on Monday, Father Hugues de Woillemont, the Secretary-General of the Conference of Bishops’ of France, expressed confidence in the French judicial system and noted that although Father Hamel’s death remains a great source of trauma for many, “his life and his martyrdom bear fruit.”

“Father Jacques Hamel will remain for the priests of France a fine example of priestly life. He will remain for Christians the witness of a charity offered to all, a humble and generous servant to the end. His life and his death resonate for our country as a call to fidelity and fraternity, so that evil does not have the last word,” the statement reads.

Robert Semonsen is a political journalist based in Central Europe. His work has been featured in various English-language news outlets in Europe and the Americas. He has an educational background in biological and medical science. His Twitter handle is @R_Semonsen.

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