French court to issue verdict over 2018 Christmas market attack

The trial got under way in February (Benoit PEYRUCQ)
The trial got under way in February (Benoit PEYRUCQ)

A French court will deliver its verdict Thursday for four men charged in connection with the 2018 Christmas market attack in France's eastern city of Strasbourg, which left five people dead and 11 wounded.

The main defendant, Audrey Mondjehi, 42, faces charges including abetting murder in relation to a "terrorist" plot and associating with "terrorist" elements.

Two other men are charged with helping to supply weapons to the gunman, Cherif Chekatt, who was killed by police in 2018 after a 48-hour manhunt.

He had opened fire on revellers at one of France's most popular Christmas markets while shouting "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Greatest" in Arabic).

The trial, which began in late February in Paris, is the latest legal process over the jihadist attacks that have hit France since 2015, with most of those in the dock accused of complicity because the actual perpetrators were killed while carrying out their attacks.

On Tuesday, France's anti-terror prosecution unit (PNAT) demanded 30 years in prison for Chekatt's former cellmate, Mondjehi, on terrorism-related charges.

According to the prosecution, Mondjehi played a key role in helping Chekatt -- a convicted criminal on a list of possible extremist security risks -- obtain the gun used in the attack.

He was involved every step of the way, the prosecution said, detailing an "intense" relationship with Chekatt in the months leading up to the attack.

"I think deeply and feel a lot of sadness for all the victims. All my life I will regret what happened," Mondjehi told the court Thursday in his final statement ahead of the verdict.

"I would never have thought that he would have done that, I never thought that he was radicalised," he said.

While his defence team acknowledges Mondjehi is "not innocent," having admitted to helping supply the weapon, they claim he was unaware of Chekatt's plans.

This is a mitigating factor, his lawyer Michael Wacquez argued, saying he should not be convicted of terrorism but only "criminal conspiracy".

The court is expected to issue the verdict late Thursday afternoon or early evening.

— 'A mistake' –

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the Strasbourg attack, and a video of Chekatt pledging allegiance to the group was found at his home.

But the interior minister at the time, Christophe Castaner, said the jihadist group was taking credit for an attack it had not planned.

The three other defendants -- all in their 30s -- face criminal conspiracy charges for their role in supplying weapons.

A fifth defendant, Albert B., 83, may be tried at a later date for selling Mondjehi and Chekatt the weapon used in the massacre a few hours before the attack.

But a medical examination found his health was not compatible with taking part in the current long trial.

The prosecution requested five years in prison for both Christian H., accused of selling weapons ultimately not used in the attack, and Frederic B., who is on trial for passing the gun seller's number to Mondjehi.

If his client had not given him the number, someone else would have, said Frederic B's lawyer.

"He was certainly a link, but he was replaceable," said Guillaume Halbique.

The prosecution recommended acquitting the fourth defendant, Stephane B, conceding that he was not present when his brother put Mondjehi and Chekatt in contact with the gun seller.

His lawyer, Amandine Sbidian, said the justice system must "recognise it made a mistake".

Among recent terror trials, a Paris court in December 2022 convicted all eight suspects over a 2016 truck attack in the Mediterranean city of Nice, which left 86 dead, including the driver.

In the highest-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.