Suspects in Bastille Day attack trial deny terrorist ties

September 6, 2022 GMT
In this courtroom sketch by Elisabeth de Pourquery, suspects from the left, rear, Artan Henaj, Chakri Chafroud, Ramzi Arefa, and below, Mohamed Walid Ghraieb, Endri Elezi, Makzim Celaj and Enkeledka Zace sit in court on the first day of the Nice attack trial in Paris, Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. A special French terrorism court on Monday opened the trial of eight people accused of helping a man who, on Bastille Day six years ago, plowed a heavy truck through crowds in a southern French resort town leaving 86 dead. (Elisabeth de Pourquery/France TV via AP)
In this courtroom sketch by Elisabeth de Pourquery, suspects from the left, rear, Artan Henaj, Chakri Chafroud, Ramzi Arefa, and below, Mohamed Walid Ghraieb, Endri Elezi, Makzim Celaj and Enkeledka Zace sit in court on the first day of the Nice attack trial in Paris, Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. A special French terrorism court on Monday opened the trial of eight people accused of helping a man who, on Bastille Day six years ago, plowed a heavy truck through crowds in a southern French resort town leaving 86 dead. (Elisabeth de Pourquery/France TV via AP)
In this courtroom sketch by Elisabeth de Pourquery, suspects from the left, rear, Artan Henaj, Chakri Chafroud, Ramzi Arefa, and below, Mohamed Walid Ghraieb, Endri Elezi, Makzim Celaj and Enkeledka Zace sit in court on the first day of the Nice attack trial in Paris, Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. A special French terrorism court on Monday opened the trial of eight people accused of helping a man who, on Bastille Day six years ago, plowed a heavy truck through crowds in a southern French resort town leaving 86 dead. (Elisabeth de Pourquery/France TV via AP)
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In this courtroom sketch by Elisabeth de Pourquery, suspects from the left, rear, Artan Henaj, Chakri Chafroud, Ramzi Arefa, and below, Mohamed Walid Ghraieb, Endri Elezi, Makzim Celaj and Enkeledka Zace sit in court on the first day of the Nice attack trial in Paris, Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. A special French terrorism court on Monday opened the trial of eight people accused of helping a man who, on Bastille Day six years ago, plowed a heavy truck through crowds in a southern French resort town leaving 86 dead. (Elisabeth de Pourquery/France TV via AP)
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In this courtroom sketch by Elisabeth de Pourquery, suspects from the left, rear, Artan Henaj, Chakri Chafroud, Ramzi Arefa, and below, Mohamed Walid Ghraieb, Endri Elezi, Makzim Celaj and Enkeledka Zace sit in court on the first day of the Nice attack trial in Paris, Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. A special French terrorism court on Monday opened the trial of eight people accused of helping a man who, on Bastille Day six years ago, plowed a heavy truck through crowds in a southern French resort town leaving 86 dead. (Elisabeth de Pourquery/France TV via AP)

PARIS (AP) — The defendants on trial for the 2016 Bastille Day truck attack in Nice that killed 86 people denied any links to terrorism and told the court Tuesday that they had been trapped or fooled by the driver at fault for the massacre.

The driver, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, was killed by police after the attack on the Mediterranean city’s storied beachfront, where 25,000 people had gathered to celebrate France’s national holiday.

The eight people who went on trial in Paris this week are accused of helping him, though investigators didn’t find evidence that they were directly involved in the carnage.

While the Islamic State group claimed responsibility and Bouhlel had been inspired by its propaganda, investigators found no evidence that IS orchestrated the attack.

The suspects on trial, in their opening testimony Tuesday, sought to distance themselves from the attacker and any extremist ideas.

“I saw nothing coming and I found myself caught in the gears,” said Mohamed Ghraieb, charged with association with a terrorist criminal. “It was a scumbag who did this. Terrorism frightens me.”

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Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, 31, was perceived by his family as a violent person, but not religious. He ate pork and drank alcohol. Ghraieb and other defendants said they didn’t notice his radicalization, which investigators said developed in the space of just a few weeks before the attack.

“On the day of July 14, I was with the injured and I did it with all my heart. When the name of the terrorist came out, I was the one who went to the police,” to offer testimony about the attacker, Ghraieb told the court. “I have told the truth from the start.”

He said Lahouaiej-Bouhlel “tricked me.” Investigators say Ghraieb was close to the attacker and rode in the truck used for the attack earlier that week.

Suspect Chokri Chafroud, also accused of close ties to the attacker, struggled for words to describe the horrors of that night. “I don’t know what was on his mind. But I didn’t help him at all.”

Ramai Arefa told he court he was 21 years old and living “on drug trafficking” at the time of the attack. “I admit having been the intermediary for the sale of a pistol, but I did not know this person outside of drug trafficking. I did not partner with him on any project.”

The other defendants were charged with lesser, non-terrorist crimes such as sale or transport of weapons.

Two spoke via Albanian translators, saying they were sorry for the victims but knew nothing about Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s intentions.

They said they had only been in France for a few months and were working under the table in construction, and both said they had nothing to do with terrorism.

Seven of the eight accused were in court. The eighth, in detention in Tunisia, is being tried in absentia. If convicted, they face sentences ranging from five years to life in prison.

The trial is scheduled to last three and a half months, with a verdict expected in December.