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Verdict in France’s ‘trial of the century’: Between relief and the years ahead

(PARIS) — Wednesday marked the epilogue of a nearly 10-month-long and emotional trial for the Paris terror attacks of Nov. 13, 2015, with Salah Abdeslam — the only person directly involved in the planning who’s still alive — receiving the heaviest sentence under French law.

Families of victims and journalists were amassed either in the cafés or under the shades afforded by the trees circling Place Dauphine, in front of the 1st Arrondissement Tribunal, on Wednesday afternoon, waiting for the verdict in the “trial of the century.”

They waited all afternoon for the court, which had retired to deliberate Monday, to finally learn the fate of the 20 defendants, among whom is 32-year-old Abdelsam, the only survivor of the death commando and key suspect in the landmark trial for the 2015 terror attacks that claimed 130 lives, and more than 400 others were wounded.

Nine suicide bombers committed simultaneous attacks outside the Stade de France in Saint-Denis during a soccer match, on a number of Parisian cafés and restaurants and inside the Bataclan concert hall during a packed performance, where the American rock band Eagles of Death Metal was playing. The attacks were later claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. At the Bataclan alone, 90 people were killed by terrorists with machine guns after being taken hostage.

The trial for the deadliest attacks ever committed in France opened on Sept. 8, 2021. There were 1,800 plaintiffs and 330 lawyers, and the trial took place in front of a specially composed panel of professional judges, instead of a jury of peers.

The 149 days of the trial that followed, often interrupted by cases of COVID-19 among the accused, were punctuated by the emotional and graphic testimonies of 415 people — out of the thousands of victims — along with testimony from first responders, former President François Hollande, the defendants and Belgian investigators.

Stéphane Sarrade, a member of the victims’ association 13Onze15 — a name that refers to the date of the attack, lost his then-23-year-old son Hugo at the Bataclan.

“It’s going to start. It smells of beer,” was the last text he received from Hugo at 8:00 p.m. that night, the father of two told ABC News.

Stéphane Sarrade, who “had almost no expectations at the start of this trial,” was happy to end the trial with “some details on the chronology of events,” which allowed him to imagine his son’s last moments.

On May 17, some of Hugo’s heroes — Eagles of Death Metal’s singer Jesse Hughes and former guitarist Eden Gavino — joined the victims’ families on l’Île de la Cité to testify before the court.

“I felt like broken,” Gavino said, while Hughes said he “forgive[s] them [the terrorists]” and “hope[s] that they find the peace of God themselves.”

Alexis Lebrun, 33, a Bataclan survivor and a member of the victims’ association Life for Paris, hesitated “a lot,” like many, but ultimately did not testify, he told ABC News near the tribunal on Wednesday.

Awaiting the verdict, Lebrun, who vehemently refuses to be seen as only “a victim of November 13 and nothing else,” told ABC News he now “aspire[s] to a form of banality.”

When Périès announced the verdict — ranging from two years to life in prison, with Abdeslam receiving life without the possibility of parole — before a very packed court, 39-year-old Thibault Morgant, who escaped the Bataclan attack with his wife, felt “nothing,” he said

However, as one of the administrators of 13Onze15, he told ABC News he felt pride “seeing that my country has been able to carry out such a procedure to its conclusion without renouncing its values.”

“The ordeal is over,” Stéphane Sarrade told ABC News.

Talking with French media France Info after the verdict, Arthur Dénouveaux, who was at the Bataclan and presides over Life For Paris, had words for the other silent victims of terrorism, the 200 children of French jihadists who still live in detention camps in Syria with their mothers.

This landmark trial will give way to another in September, as France isn’t done reckoning with terror on its soil. This time, the special Paris court will house the trial for the 2016 Nice terror attack that left 86 dead on the Promenade des Anglais.

In October, five of the 20 defendants from the Nov. 13 trial — including Abdeslam and his childhood friend Mohammed Abrini, who was filmed by CCTV cameras during the attacks in Brussels pushing a cart with two other suicide bombers — will be among the 10 defendants on trial before the Brussels Court of Appeal for the March 2016 attacks in Belgium.

In 2027, the Terrorism Memorial Museum, which aims to pay tribute to the victims of terrorism across France and around the world, is expected to open its doors.

ABC News’ Ibtissem Guenfoud contributed to this report.

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