“No one told me that I was sheltering terrorists,” a tearful Jawad Bendaoud told the packed Paris court. “I swear on the head of my son that I didn’t know they were terrorists.”
Bendaoud rented the flat north of the French capital to Abdelhamid Abaaoud — a senior Islamic State jihadist suspected of coordinating the attacks that killed 130 people — and his accomplice Chakib Akrouh.
Appearing nervous and confused, Bendaoud added: “I love life too much, I love women too much” for any such involvement.
Anti-terror police killed Abaaoud, Akrouh and Abaaoud’s cousin Hasna Aitboulahcen in a ferocious predawn assault on Bendaoud’s apartment the gritty Saint-Denis suburb north of Paris on November 18, five days after the attacks.
The 31-year-old drug dealer and landlord became a national laughing stock after a television interview in which he came across as clueless, also insisting then he was unaware that Abaaoud and Akrouh were jihadists as police raided the hideout.
It provided a darkly comic moment after the deadliest attacks in France since World War II.
The trial comes ahead of that of the only survivor among the 10 gunmen who carried out the killing spree, Salah Abdeslam, who is due to appear in court in Belgium early next month.
The start of the judicial process is being followed closely by some survivors who are keen to understand more about the atrocities. Others are still too traumatised to pay close attention.
“We’ve had two years of suffering and now we want to see something happen,” Aurore Bonnet, whose husband was killed at the Bataclan concert hall during the attacks, said Wednesday. “We want them to take responsibility for their actions.”
– Ferocious assault –
The case will hinge on whether Bendaoud actively conspired in helping the jihadists to hide, or whether he got caught up in events unknowingly. He faces a maximum six years in prison if convicted.
He has insisted throughout that he is innocent, while his lawyer and friends have pointed to his drug-taking, womanising and love of music as evidence he had no sympathy for the Islamic State cause.
“They couldn’t possibly not have known that they were helping terrorists. There’s no doubt about it,” a lawyer representing civil plaintiffs in the case, Gerard Chemla, told the court Wednesday.
Bendaoud told French TV that “someone asked me for a favour, I helped them out,” adding that all he knew was that they were from Belgium and wanted some water and a place to pray.
The clip went viral on the internet, with commentators ridiculing Bendaoud’s apparent lack of curiosity about his guests.
The press nicknamed him the “Daesh landlord” after another name for IS, and his own lawyer Xavier Nogueras described him as “the one we laughed about, having cried so much” after the attacks.
– How much did he know? –
Bendaoud has a long criminal record, including a conviction for cocaine dealing and for manslaughter after he killed a man in a fight over a mobile phone. He was released from that sentence in 2013.
He went on trial alongside his friend Mohamed Soumah, who is being prosecuted for failing to alert police about a terror plot, as well as Youssef Aitboulahcen, the brother of Hasna Aitboulahcen, the woman killed in the raid on the apartment.
In court on Wednesday, Aitboulahcen described his sister as a “psychologically unstable person” who was addicted to cannabis and cocaine and drank alcohol while also wearing a full Islamic veil.
Ten heavily armed jihadists attacked the national stadium, bars and restaurants in Paris as well as the Bataclan concert venue on the night of November 13 in a bloodbath claimed by IS.
Abdeslam, the only surviving jihadist, was arrested in Belgium four months after the attacks and transferred to France, where he has refused to cooperate with investigators.
He is to go on trial in Belgium on February 5 over a shootout with police that led to his capture.
Around 15 people are in custody or being sought by police as part of the sprawling probe into the Paris attacks which has taken investigators to Belgium, Morocco and Turkey.