By Juliette Jabkhiro and Antony Paone
PARIS (Reuters) -Seven men and one woman went on trial on Monday over a deadly 2016 truck rampage in the French city of Nice, accused of helping the driver who killed 86 people, including 15 children and teenagers, who had gathered to watch a fireworks display.
Attacker Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was shot dead by police on the spot after causing devastation and chaos on a stretch of about two km (1.2 miles) on Nice’s seaside boulevard, where families were celebrating Bastille Day.
Prosecutors say the defendants, who face between five years in jail to a life sentence, helped Tunisian-born Lahouaiej Bouhlel get weapons, rent the truck or survey the route he took for the attack.
“It’s a difficult moment, it’s very complicated,” Anne Murris, who lost her daughter in the attack, said as she arrived at the court. “This sends me back six years ago, when I was looking for my daughter (after the attack)… a lot of sadness, also feelings of fear.”
None of the defendants is accused of taking part in the attack or even of being complicit, which survivors said they struggled with.
The lack of high-profile defendants, together with the fact that there are question marks over the attacker’s motives, mean the Nice trial is quite different from the past months’ trial into the Islamist attacks that killed 130 in Paris in 2015.
Islamic State claimed responsibility a few days after the Nice massacre, but offered no proof that the attacker, who had a record of domestic violence and petty crimes, had direct contact with the group.
There are serious doubts over whether this was an opportunistic claim of responsibility, and the prosecutors’ office said that was one of the points the trial would aim to clarify. They could not say whether the defendants would plead guilty or deny any wrongdoing.
Described by neighbours as a “frightening” man with a tense personality, Lahouaiej Bouhlel had months before his rampage been handed a six-month suspended sentence for hurling a wooden pallet at another driver in a road rage incident.
French media including Le Monde and Liberation this week reported accounts by his wife of severe domestic violence by a husband who beat her, raped her and threatened to kill her and their children if she left him.
Lahouaiej Bouhlel drank alcohol, ate pork and showed no interest in religion, they quoted his wife as telling investigators after the attack. He started looking up Islamist content online weeks before the attack, Le Monde wrote.
Three of the accused, close friends of the attacker, are accused of participation in a terrorist criminal association for helping him obtain weapons and the truck. Two of those face 20 years in jail, while one faces a life sentence.
The five other defendants are accused of helping indirectly through arms trafficking and face shorter sentences. One of that group will be tried in absentia.
“Some people are hoping the trial will help them move forward,” said Jean-Claude Hubler, who chairs the Life for Nice victims’ association.
“Some are so angry that for them the trial will not lead to anything significant – we know that the terrorist is dead.”
Hubler said he and a number of other victims were more interested in seeing whether officials will, separately from this trial, face sanctions for what he said was a lack of security to protect the Bastille Day celebrations.
The trial verdict is expected in December.
(Additional reporting by Tangi SalaunWriting by Ingrid Melander, Editing by Frances Kerry and Ed Osmond)