Then French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared March 19, 2012, the date an Islamic militant killed a Jewish rabbi and three children in Toulouse, “a day of national tragedy.”
The gunman, Mohammed Merah, a French petty criminal of Algerian descent, had targeted French soldiers a week earlier in two attacks, one at a shopping center. On March 19 it was the turn of the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school.
Dismounting a motorbike, the 23-year-old Merah unleashed a fusillade toward the schoolyard, killing first the rabbi as he shielded his two young sons, who were shot also, and then chasing a fleeing eight-year-old Jewish girl. Merah grabbed her by the hair, shooting her in the temple with a .45 caliber gun after his 9mm pistol had jammed.
Six-and-half-years after Merah’s rampage, those terrifying days in Toulouse are finally being re-lived in a special criminal court in Paris — something some of the relatives of the dead have demanded, arguing that they need closure.
It isn’t, though, the assassin who’s on trial — he was killed after a 32-hour police siege — but two men French prosecutors insist were accomplices to the slaughter: Merah’s older brother, 35-year-old Abdelkader, and a friend, Fettah Malki.
Prosecutors claim they were complicit in the slayings, assisting Merah to steal the motorbike used in a series of attacks between March 11 and March 19, paying for a flak jacket the killer reportedly wore and providing him with an Uzi submachine gun and ammunition.
Both men deny providing equipment or knowing what Merah intended. Prosecutors say Abdelkader, who had been on the intelligence radar for years, discussed targeting and was a key factor in the radicalization of the younger brother, who is believed to have trained with al-Qaida militants in Pakistan.
Lawyers for the men say the trial is really of Mohammed Merah but with their clients substituted for the dead militant. They argue there’s an absence of hard proof in the prosecution case.
Abdelkader is the third relative of a jihadist who has faced trial recently in France and this trial comes as lawmakers in some neighboring European countries are demanding changes in their anti-terror laws that would make it easier to prosecute family members who either withhold information from authorities or fail to report a relative who has gone or returned from fighting abroad for a jihadist group.
Last Friday, a Frenchwoman, who traveled to Syria three times to support her jihadist son was sentenced to a 10-year prison term. The court found that the 51-year-old Christine Riviere, who the French press has nicknamed “Mama Jihad,” had assisted several young women in traveling to Syria, part of an effort to find a bride for her son Tyler Vilus, who is believed to have been a friend of one of the masterminds of the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud.
Vilus was arrested in Turkey two years ago and extradited to France, where he is awaiting trial.
Last month, the mother of another French jihadist was jailed in France for two years after she was convicted of wiring 2,800 euros ($3,300) to her son while he was in Malaysia en route to join the Islamic State terror group in Syria.
Nathalie Haddadi argued she didn’t know how her son Belabbas Bounaga would use the money and said she was being ‘double punished’ as a grieving parent. Her son was killed in Syria last year. In addition, Belabbas Bounaga’s brother and a friend were convicted for terrorism financing, too: the brother for wiring 500 euros ($586) and the friend 2,900 euros ($3,400).
“I have trouble understanding how they can accuse me of financing terrorism,” Haddadi told reporters before the verdict was delivered. She is planning to appeal her conviction.
Her lawyer Herve Denis has argued his client is determined not to allow a precedent to be established that could be used against approximately another 2,000 French parents, whose sons or daughters have travelled to Syria to join either IS or al-Qaida-linked groups. Convicting a “tearful mother…is not harsh, it’s nasty,” he told reporters after the conviction.
It is a view shared by Bérénice Boutin, an analyst at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism at The Hague, a policy research group. She argues that applying criminal measures against parents that were designed to disrupt serious funding of terrorism is “arguably disproportionate, and constitutes one more example of the excessive use of broad counter-terrorism laws that has been observed in the past years.”
Writing on the ICCT’s web-site, she says that Nathalie Haddadi’s case illustrates the dilemma that relatives of foreign fighters can face.
“If you were a parent who knows that your child traveled to Syria, and this child was to contact you to ask for some money to cover basic needs such as food or medical costs, what would you do?,” she asks. “This has often been the situation of parents and other relatives accused of terrorism financing. In many cases, factual circumstances are far from clear-cut, and parents find themselves having to choose between abandoning their child or risking supporting terrorist activities,” she added.
In Britain, the parents of a Muslim convert nicknamed by the London press ‘Jihadi Jack’ have been given leave to appeal to the Supreme Court in their campaign to fight accusations that they funded terrorism by wiring money to their son in Syria, where he is now being held by Kurdish fighters.
Jack Letts is alleged to have been the first white Briton to join Islamic State in 2014. His parents, John Letts, an organic farmer, and Sally Lane, from Oxford, are accused of sending hundreds of pounds to their son between September 2015 and January 2016 while knowing or having reasonable cause to suspect that it may be used for a terrorist purpose.
French officials concede privately that there are shades of gray in the Haddadi case, but argue there are none with the other two. “Christine Riviere shared her sons jihadist ideas, was posting jihadist propaganda — including beheading videos,” one counter-terror official told VOA. “Abdelkader had dinner with his brother after one of the attacks,” he added.