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Law and Conflict Students Observe Charlie Hebdo Terror Trial

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Throughout October 2020, Professor Sharon Weill of the Department of History and Politics is taking students from her Law and Conflict class on a rolling basis to attend the prominent trial of 14 individuals accused of involvement in the terror attacks on the Parisian offices of Charlie Hebdo and a Hypercacher kosher supermarket in January 2015. The trial is taking place in the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris, a new courthouse in the French capital’s 17th arrondissement.

The trial observation provides practical experience to complement the course’s academic elements, which cover topics such as the War on Terror, terrorism prosecution and French engagement with jihadist groups during the conflict in Syria. Professor Weill was keen to show students how French law is applied in practice. “I think that the scene in the courtroom is like an orchestra,” she explains. “You have different actors performing justice, and it is this interaction that produces the judicial decision.” She argues that these elements may be lost when only looking at the final results of the trial.

Students attended the courtroom for either a morning or afternoon session, giving them two to three hours of observation time, and were required to take field notes in order to work toward a collaborative trial diary which will form the basis of the class’s midterm assessment. The notes consist of a personal appraisal of the experience and a reflection on what students learned from their observations. “What was once a foreign event became more personal after attending the trial,” wrote student Delaney A. in her own field notes. “These trials have allowed victims and their families to have their voices heard, and to bring justice to them and the country as a whole.”

An additional area of focus for the class was on the differences between the US and French legal systems – the latter, for example, has a much stronger emphasis on victim participation, and it is common for judges, rather than lawyers, to interrogate the accused directly. “This was definitely one of the most interesting academic experiences I’ve had at AUP,” commented Jacob R., another attending student. “The informality of the proceedings really shocked me. The way the judge and the accused would cut each other off, use informal language, and huff and puff was almost funny.”

Professor Sharon Weill has many years’ experience researching terrorism trials. She recently co-directed an empirical research project on terrorism trials on behalf of the French Ministry of Justice, and has also published research on the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay.


Additional Comments from Students

Thorin E.: “The most striking thing to me about the trial was the informality of it. Coming from the US legal system, I was surprised to see the defendant dressed so informally in a Nike sweater and responding directly to questioning.”

Savanna N.: “It was more casual than I expected in the building – judges were just walking by and chatting; the security was quite friendly."