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Lessons from the 2015 Paris attacks trial that ended in June

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The largest trial in French history has officially come to an end. This week, defense lawyers for the 20 people found guilty in the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris declined to appeal the guilty verdict. That's welcome news for the survivors of the attacks, which killed 130 people and injured hundreds of others. As reporter Rebecca Rosman tells us, survivors say the trial holds lessons for people not just in France, but also here in the U.S.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: Getting this trial off the ground was not easy. The French government had to build a special $8 million courthouse to accommodate more than 2,000 plaintiffs, collect more than 1 million pages of evidence and hear hundreds of testimonies. But survivor Arthur Denouveaux says a moment in history as defining as this one needed a trial to match.

ARTHUR DENOUVEAUX: We were able to be heard inside the courtroom by the accused, also by the whole French society.

ROSMAN: Denouveaux is the president of Life for Paris, a support group for survivors of the November 2015 attacks, when terrorists working for the Islamic State targeted local bars and restaurants, the national soccer stadium and the Bataclan concert hall. All 20 defendants were found guilty for their involvement, but Denouveaux says in the final moments of the trial, he realized the process was more important to him than the verdict.

DENOUVEAUX: Which meant that the trial had worked for me as well. I was like, OK, if this guy - if that's what the judges say, I'm OK with it.

ROSMAN: In other words, he says the trial had done its job in helping the country confront the trauma of a typical Friday evening that turned into the worst terrorist attack on French soil. Denis Peschanski is a French historian who has written extensively about this trial, which he calls a victory for democracy.

DENIS PESCHANSKI: I think it's like a model to showing that democracy can answer totalitarianism and barbai (ph).

ROSMAN: He also says knowing there was an investigation into that barbarism helped tamp down conspiracy theories within French society. Most importantly, it's tied up loose ends for families of the victims, something people in the U.S. say they're still waiting for.

KRISTEN BREITWEISER: Unfortunately, 20 years out, we're still fighting to receive justice and accountability.

ROSMAN: Kristen Breitweiser's husband Ron was killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11. She says a trial to prosecute those who helped coordinate the attacks would bring closure.

BREITWEISER: When you watch someone get murdered, someone that you love, you want to see justice be done. You want to see that that life was not lost in vain. And you also want to see that your nation stands behind you.

ROSMAN: But she and other victims' families are becoming less hopeful a trial will ever happen in the U.S. There was an attempt to prosecute the five coordinators of the 9/11 attacks. But after years of delays, in March, prosecutors at the Guantanamo Bay prison admitted they'll probably never be able to try the case. Now they're working on plea deals, but that would be a mistake, says Bataclan survivor Arthur Denouveaux.

DENOUVEAUX: It's always easy to put people away, but when you do that, you don't get any explanation. You don't offer victims the right for justice. And you create a zone where laws don't apply.

ROSMAN: Denouveaux says the Paris trial's conclusion has opened a new chapter for him, and those still struggling to heal from the 9/11 attacks deserve the same. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Rosman
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