The older brother of a man who killed Jewish schoolchildren and paratroopers in southern France was convicted Thursday of having ties to a terrorist enterprise but found not guilty of complicity in his sibling's deadly attacks.
A Paris court sentenced Abdelkader Merah, 35, to 20 years in prison after a tense and emotional trial over the slayings his younger brother, Mohammed Merah, carried out in the Toulouse region in March 2012. The shootings marked the first of what became a wave of attacks in France perpetrated by homegrown Islamic extremists.
The trial was the only opportunity for families of the seven victims — three Jewish schoolchildren, a teacher and three paratroopers — to seek public justice. Days after his deadly rampage, Mohammed Merah, 23, was killed by France's police special forces after a 32-hour standoff.
The younger Merah trained with al-Qaida-linked extremists in Pakistan. During his standoff with the elite police unit, he spoke with an intelligence negotiator and claimed to have acted on behalf of the al-Qaida group.
Abdelkader Merah was accused of radicalizing his younger brother, but always denied helping Mohammed plan or prepare for the fatal shootings he executed from a powerful motor scooter.
After eight hours of deliberations, the five professional magistrates who heard the case convicted Merah of a lesser crime — taking part in a criminal terrorist association with his brother and others.
But the court acquitted him of the most serious charge, complicity in the terror murders Mohammed committed, for which he faced a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Presiding Judge Franck Zientara said there was no proof the older Merah helped his brother set up or carry out his nine-day shooting spree.
"Abdelkader Merah shared his brother's motives, but none of the elements in the case file or at the trial shows that he knew of the targets and crimes of his brother," Zientara said.
The verdict was received calmly by the victims' families, who occupied the courtroom's first benches. The mothers of two of the three paratroopers killed by Mohammed Merah cried.
After leaving the courtroom, one of the mothers, Latifa Ibn Ziaten, said "it was very hard, too hard" and expressed regret that the court didn't go "all the way."
"I think we are naive and we need to open our eyes. This is not what I was expecting," Ibn Ziaten told reporters. "As for Abdelkader Merah, I hope that every day and every night in his life he will see us, all these families and this suffering."
Some of the plaintiffs' lawyers also expressed disappointment at the partial acquittal.
A lawyer for Samuel Sandler, the father and grand-father of three victims, welcomed "a verdict of conviction." But the lawyer, Patrick Krugman, also noted that "the court didn't push its approach until the end."
In his ruling, Zientara said "the proceedings didn't show that Abdelkader Merah provided any assistance to his brother in perpetrating the murders."
Outside the courtroom, defense lawyers were greeted by boos and shouts from some of the courtroom observers who attended the verdict hearing in large numbers.
Eric Dupond-Moretti, the lawyer representing Abdelkader Merah, praised the court for showing the independence of the France's justice system.
"The court has reminded us that, even in the most serious terrorist cases, proof and the rule of law are not of secondary importance," Dupond-Moretti said.
The presiding judge said the evidence against Merah was "insufficient" and that "the doubt was to benefit him."
Co-defendant Fettah Malki, a 35-year-old Algerian national who moved to France as a child, was sentenced to 14 years in prison after also being convicted of taking part in a criminal terrorist association.
Malki was found guilty of providing weapons, ammunition and a bulletproof vest that Mohammed Merah used during his rampage and standoff with police.
He has maintained he did not know about his friend's deadly terror plot.
The public prosecutor had sought the maximum sentences for the two defendants: life imprisonment with 22 years before any possible parole for Merah, and 20 years in prison for Malki.
Both the prosecutor's office and the two defendants have 10 days to appeal the verdict.
The Toulouse shooting spree was to mark the start of an era of homegrown jihadi violence in France. The country has since seen an upsurge in deadly attacks, many of them carried out by young Muslim people born and radicalized in France.
Oleg Cetinic and Nicolas Garriga contributed to this report.
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