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French court acquits man accused of harboring terrorists but sentences pair to prison

AP

A court on Wednesday acquitted a man of harboring Islamic extremists after they carried out the 2015 Paris attacks, bringing a surprising end to the first criminal trial linked to France’s deadliest extremist violence since World War II. The court also convicted two co-defendants and sentenced them to prison.

The Nov. 13, 2015, attacks on Paris cafes, the national stadium and the Bataclan concert hall left 130 people dead. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility.

Jawad Bendaoud, a 31-year-old street criminal, had provided lodging to two of the attackers when they were the most wanted criminals in France. He denied knowing the identity of the men to whom he rented a small apartment in Saint-Denis. One of them was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks.

Judge Isabelle Prevost-Desprez said in her ruling, “It has not been proven that Jawad Bendaoud provided accommodation to two individuals whom he knew to be terrorists.”

Of his co-defendants, Mohamed Soumah, who was accused of acting as an intermediary with Bendaoud to secure lodging for the two fugitives, received a five-year prison sentence. Youssef Ait-Boulahcen, who was accused of knowing the extremists’ whereabouts and not informing authorities, was sentenced to three years in prison plus another year that was suspended.

The Paris prosecutor’s office announced it was appealing the whole verdict.

Bendaoud has been imprisoned for 27 months pending his trial. A judicial official said he was expected to be released shortly.

The prosecutor had requested a four-year prison term for Bendaoud, saying he knew he was giving refuge to criminals.

Surprisingly, Bilal Mokono, a victim who was seriously wounded in the 2015 attack at the national stadium, and the lawyer for Bendaoud hugged each other after verdict.

“Some victims have been hurt (by the verdict), some victims who were expecting much more, who would have wanted him to be convicted. But he would have been wrongly convicted,” Mokono told reporters.

Didier Seban, a lawyer representing several relatives and victims, said the decision to acquit Bendaoud “will appear as abnormal to the relatives and victims.”

About 500 victims of the attacks and their relatives had joined the legal action as civil parties, or applied to be registered as plaintiffs.

Of the nine men who directly carried out the 2015 Paris attacks, seven died at the scene. The two surviving killers fled and were killed on Nov. 18, 2015, during an hours-long police siege at the Saint-Denis apartment.

During the trial, Bendaoud said he rented the apartment to the two men only to make money. He claimed he thought at the time that all the extremists had died in the attacks.

Bendaoud also insisted he had nothing to do with terrorists or jihadi ideology because “I love life, women, my son and my mother too much.”

Investigators found no extremist files or traces of jihadi sites in computers and phones used by Bendaoud, and nothing showing possible religious “radicalization.”

Bendaoud won immediate fame all over France when he gave a surprising TV interview during the police raid on the apartment. He approached the security perimeter around the besieged building and spoke to journalists to clumsily proclaim his innocence.

“I wasn’t aware they were terrorists,” he told the BFMTV channel. “I was told to put up two people for three days. I helped out.”

A police officer then arrested him live on camera.