Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving jihadist in the November 2015 Paris attacks, was last night found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole, marking the end of the biggest trial in French history.
In total, all 20 men on trial were found guilty for their part in the Bataclan massacre that left 130 people dead and scarred France.
Abdeslam, 32, was found guilty of murder and attempted murder in relation with a terrorist enterprise, among other charges.
The much-awaited end to the court case, which began in September 2021, was the culmination of nine months of hearings and a six-year probe leading to more than a million pages of legal documents.
The Paris attacks left a deep scars among survivors and victims’ families but also the national psyche and many viewed the trial as group therapy and the affirmation of dignity and justice over blind barbarity.
The final days homed in on the sole surviving member of the team of Islamic State group jihadists who stormed the French capital, attacking the national sports stadium, bars and the Bataclan concert hall on a balmy Friday evening.
Abdeslam, 32, was arrested by police four months after the bloodbath, having discarded his defective suicide belt on the night of the attack and fled back to his hometown, Brussels, where many of the extremists lived. He insisted he declined to detonate himself "out of humanity".
The court was asked to decide whether he was a cold-blooded Islamist murderer seeking clemency for cynical reasons or a former pot-smoking party lover who lost his way but was now showing genuine signs of remorse.
“Hate me but with moderation,” he tearfully asked halfway through the trial.
On Monday, in his final stand, he said: ”I went to prison at the age of 26. I'm not perfect, I made mistakes, it's true. But I'm not a murderer, I'm not a killer.”
"If you convict me for murder, you will be committing an injustice," added the Frenchman of Moroccan origin in his final statement to the specially built room at the historic court complex in central Paris.
However, reading out the motivations behind the verdict, presiding judge Jean-Louis Périès, said the court had decided that Abdeslam's involvement in the Belgian terror cell had began "well before" the Paris attacks.
Although the target assigned to him in Paris remained in doubt, the judges considered that the fact his explosive belt "was not working ... seriously cast into question his declarations about pulling out (of blowing himself up)".
He was given a full-life term which offers only a small chance of parole after 30 years, only the fifth time such a sentence has been issued since it was created in 1994.
The verdict matched the prosecutors' demand for the most severe sanction allowed under French law.
François Hollande, French president at the time of the attacks, hailed the verdict.
“The trial was awaited, hoped for but also feared. It had to take place. It was exceptional. It was exemplary,” Mr Hollande said in a statement.
“Justice enabled the search for truth to better understand the thought processes of Islamist terrorism.”
In the absence of the rest of the attackers – nine out of 10 died during the attacks – the men on trial besides Abdeslam were accused of offering logistical support or plotting other attacks.
"Not everyone is a jihadi, but all of those you are judging accepted to take part in a terrorist group, either by conviction, cowardliness or greed," prosecutor Nicolas Braconnay told the court this month.
Among them, Mohamed Abrini, admitted to driving some of the Paris attackers to the capital and explained how he was meant to take part but pulled out.
After initially sticking to the IS line on why the massacre was a justifiable response to Western aggression, the 37-year-old ended by apologising to victims in the final stages.
"I'm aware that what happened is disgusting," said the childhood friend of Abdeslam set to go on trial for separate attacks in Brussels in 2016, where he is suspected of pushing a trolley stuffed with explosives into the city's main airport.
On Wednesday, Abrini was found guilty of "involvement in a criminal terrorist gang" and "complicity in murder and attempted murder" and given life in prison with 22 years without parole.
He was, said the judge, "fully integrated into the terror cell” and “could not claim to have been unaware until the last moment the attack plans”.
However, he had "clearly given up (taking part) at the last moment".
Six of the 20 people on trial in Paris were missing, including the overall commander, senior Syria-based IS figure and veteran jihadist Oussama Atar, who is presumed dead.
Many civil plaintiffs - survivors and victims’ families - have recounted how important the trial has been in sharing their pain and finding closure as well as upholding democratic values and humane justice compared to the indiscriminate nature of the attacks and the ideology behind them.
Aurélie Sylvestre lost her partner Matthieu in the Bataclan while pregnant with their second child, who was born on March 16, 2016, two days before police arrested Abdeslam in Brussels.
She had remained silent about the trauma until the trial in which her testimony was widely relayed and praised on social media.
Speaking to Libération, she said the trial had helped her break her silence as she realised “we had all been burned by the same flame.
“The woman I was exploded on November 13 (2015). For six years, I had the feeling I was picking up little pieces of myself. With this trial, I have been able to gather this debris and sculpt, bring back to life the woman I was.”
She remained convinced that the end of the trial would allow her to “turn a huge page and after life will begin again”.
“In this strange 10-month crossing, bridges have been built between the defence and certain defendants and other civil plaintiffs,” said Arthur Dénouveaux, president of the victims’ association Life for Paris.
French society can be “proud” that its criminal justice system “works well”, he said. “Democracy has won and it re-legitimises our social contract.”