Eleven people have been sentenced to life in prison in Ivory Coast after being convicted of abetting an attack that killed 19 people and injured dozens on a tourist beach nearly seven years ago.
Judge Charles Bini handed down the sentences on Wednesday in Abidjan, the country’s commercial hub, in the March 13, 2016, assault, which was the first such attack in Ivory Coast.
In an operation similar to an attack the previous year in Tunisia, three men wielding assault rifles stormed the beach at Grand-Bassam, a resort 40km (25 miles) east of Abidjan that’s popular with Europeans, and then attacked hotels and restaurants.
The 45-minute bloodbath ended when security forces shot and killed the attackers.
Of the 19 people killed, nine were Ivorians and four were French citizens. A Lebanese national, a German, a Macedonian, a Malian and a Nigerian also died, and there was one victim who could not be identified. At least 33 people were wounded.
Al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility the same day for the attack.
It said the attack was in response to military operations in the Sahel by France and its allies and said it targeted Ivory Coast for having handed over its fighters to Mali.
Several dozen people were arrested, including three suspected accomplices of the attackers who were detained in Mali.
Eighteen people were charged in Ivory Coast with acts of “terrorism”, murder, attempted murder, criminal concealment, illegal possession of firearms and ammunition, “and complicity in these deeds”, Public Prosecutor Richard Adou said.
“We have to discourage the followers of these terrorist acts,” he said, summing up his case before Wednesday’s verdict. “We have been confronted with horror and barbarity.”
Of the 18 defendants, only four were present in court. The 14 others, including the suspected masterminds of the attack, are either on the run or being held in Mali, Aude Rimailho, a lawyer for the French civilian plaintiffs, said before the trial.
The four defendants in court – Hantao Ag Mohamed Cisse, Sidi Mohamed Kounta, Mohamed Cisse and Hassan Barry – were given life sentences along with seven others tried in absentia. The remaining seven defendants were acquitted.
Mohamed Cisse, said at the start of the trial on November 30 that he had worked as a driver for the man named as the operational mastermind and prime suspect in the attack, Kounta Dallah. Mohamed Cisse argued in his defence that he “had no idea about his dirty work”.
The seven convicted in absentia include Mimi Ould Baba Ould El Moktar, who was arrested in 2017 by French forces in the Sahel as part of their Operation Barkhane.
Ivorian prosecutors painted him as one of the ringleaders in the Grand-Bassam killings while authorities in Burkina Faso described him as the “operational chief” in an attack in their capital, Ouagadougou, in January 2016.
The Ivorian court issued an arrest warrant for Kounta Dallah.
‘Everything is not perfect’
Survivors of the attack were satisfied with the verdict but said they would not get closure until everyone was caught.
“It’s good, but unfortunately, everything is not perfect because the mastermind was not on the stand,” said Patrick Colin, manager of a hotel in Grand-Bassam. “It will be over for the victims when he is caught.”
Defence lawyer Eric Saki said he had “mixed feelings” about the verdict.
“I am happy for those who have been declared totally innocent, but I am sad for the four who, from my point of view, should also have benefitted from an acquittal,” he said.
The attack on Grand-Bassam was the first and so far deadliest in a string of sporadic attacks on countries on the Gulf of Guinea south of the Sahel.
It had a chilling effect on foreign tourism in Ivory Coast, a big money-spinner in an economy battered by a post-election conflict in 2011 that killed 3,000 people.
Since the Grand-Bassam killings, attacks in West Africa have spiked. The Sahel region in neighbouring Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso has been overrun by violence, which is now spreading to coastal states, including Ivory Coast.
From July to December, there were three attacks in the country, compared with none in the same period the year prior, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
Analysts said the fact that it took so long to reach a verdict in Ivory Coast shows the complexity of the process but also sends a message to those involved in attacks that they will at some point pay the price.