Terror in Europe

Charlie Hebdo, Minute-By-Minute Chronicle Of A Massacre

The cold execution of French police officer Ahmed Merabet
The cold execution of French police officer Ahmed Merabet
Screenshot of an amateur video
Soren Seelow

PARIS — Like every Wednesday, they were all there, almost all. Gathered around sugar chouquettes and croissants at the large oval table that takes up the whole room, for the weekly editorial meeting — a fixed ritual since the founding of Charlie Hebdo.

To the left, Charb, the editor-in-chief. On this Wednesday, Jan. 7, cartoonists Cabu, Wolinski, Tignous, Honoré and Riss, editors Laurent Léger, Fabrice Nicolino and Philippe Lançon, economist Bernard Maris and columnists Sigolène Vinson and Elsa Cayat were seated around him.

The editorial meeting generally starts at 10.30 a.m. and rapidly livens up with a few salacious jokes. There’s only one taboo subject: the coffee machine, which always seems to be broken. On the walls, several “legendary” front pages of the satirical newspaper: the November 2011 one with “Charia Hebdo” (Sharia Hebdo), which had provoked the arson attack that destroyed the weekly’s former offices; another cover on French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen illustrated as a “turd” on the French flag; a caricature of the Pope denouncing pedophilia in the Church; a wincing Sarkozy…

The meeting ends when it ends, which means when it’s time to have a bite to eat at the Petites Canailles, a bistro around the corner on rue Amelot, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris.

This Wednesday, nobody would make it to lunch at the Petites Canailles. It was one hour into the meeting when two men in balaclavas burst in amid the pens and notebooks, silencing the merry hubbub. They were armed with assault rifles. One of the attackers said: “Charb?” He shot Charb, followed quickly with more rapid bursts of gunfire. According to the survivors, they shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) and “You’re going to pay because you insulted the Prophet.”

One of them put a gun to the head of Sigolène Vinson, and said: “You, we won’t kill you because we don’t kill women, but you’ll read the Koran.”

Seven editors and cartoonists died in just a matter of seconds: Cabu, Charb, Tignous, Wolinski, Bernard Maris, Honoré and the psychoanalyst and columnist Elsa Cayet, a woman. Mustapha Ourrad, the Algerian copy editor who obtained French citizenship a month earlier, was also assassinated. Franck Brinsolaro, one of the two police officers assigned to ensure Charb’s permanent protection since the 2011 attack, was also killed, as was Michel Renaud, the former chief of staff of the Clermont-Ferrand Mayor, invited by the newspaper to participate in the staff meeting.

A final tweet

At 11:28 a.m., a few minutes before the killing, the weekly had just published premonitory New Year greetings on Twitter: one cartoon by Honoré picturing al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, along with this comment: “And most importantly, good health!”

The cartoonist died shortly afterwards with his friends around the large oval table, the same one where the caricaturists scratch their last cartoons at the end of the day, where the final front page choices are made in a profusion of clever wordplays and cheap jokes.

The illustrator Corinne Rey, aka “Coco”, who survived, spoke afterward to the French daily L’Humanité: “They shot Wolinski, Cabu ... It lasted five minutes. I hid under a desk."

In their killing spree, a few minutes earlier, the attackers shot dead a maintenance staff employee of the building on the ground floor, Frédéric Boisseau, 42. Soon afterward, on Boulevard Richard Lenoir, a second injured police officer, Ahmed Merabet, was executed after attempting to stop the fleeing killers.

Twelve dead altogether, eleven injured, including four seriously. “An indescribable carnage,” according to a witness who entered the offices after the attack.

The emergency teams, who arrived on site, described “war wounds”. “I'd never seen anything like that in my career,” a trauma doctor said: “We’re trained for that but not to live it in reality.”

Christophe Deloire, the head of Reporters Sans Frontières, called it “the darkest day for the French press” — it was also the bloodiest terrorist attack to strike France in half a century.

Hunting for Charlie

The fog was hanging cold and heavy this Wednesday morning when two men, dressed in black and wearing bullet-proof vests, arrived, apparently poorly informed, at No. 6 of the rue Nicolas Appert, two numbers away from Charlie Hebdo’s offices. They took advantage of the arrival of the postal woman, who'd come to deliver a piece of registered mail, to rush through the door, recounted an employee of the audiovisual company Atelier des Archives, which is located in that neighboring building. They made the postal woman and an employee who came to pick up the package sit down.

Then they asked: “Where’s Charlie Hebdo?” They fired a shot, which went through the glass door of an office. An employee who was in that room came out into the hallway and exchanged a short glance with the two men.

Realizing they were in the wrong building, the assailants walked out, and went two doors down to No. 10, the address where the satirical newspaper had found refuge since July 1, 2014. Though precise about the day and time of Charlie’s editorial meeting, the attackers were however off slightly on the exact location of their offices.

According to the Paris public prosecutor’s office, they come across two janitors in the entrance hall of No. 10, and asked them where Charlie Hebdo is, before shooting one of the two. They took Coco hostage, after encountering her on the stairs. The illustrator tried to lead them astray, taking them to the third floor although the offices are on the second.

Following the 2011 attacks and the countless death threats received by the magazine, Charlie Hebdo removed all external reference to its premises. The fine plaque which decorated the entrance to its previous — firebombed — offices in the 20th arrondissement is now covered in soot and hangs inside the magazine’s offices. On the landing leading to the magazine, there is no mention of the publication’s name, with Les Editions Rotatives (Rotary Publishing) written there instead. The neighbors were asked not to disclose the magazine’s presence in the building.

According to an employee of Premières Lignes, a production company located opposite Charlie on the second floor, the two assailants threatened a worker they encountered in the third floor corridor. Always the same, obsessive question: “Where is Charlie?” When they finally found the right door, Coco who, at gunpoint, was forced to punch in the code on the armored door which leads to the magazine’s offices.

A final victim, and survivor

After the office massacre, the two attackers jump into a black Citroën C3 parked in front of the building. A witness tells police that he saw an accomplice arrive on the scene in the C3 and take off on a scooter. The two gunmen flee down a side street where they meet the first police officers; a bicycle patrol. Shots are fired by both sides, but no-one is injured.

The Premières Lignes employees had taken refuge on the roof of the building when the first shots were fired, and they filmed the exchange of gunfire. Between two bursts, it sounds like someone cries “Allahu Akbar.” The assailants then cross the path of a police car on rue Pelée and a second volley of shots ensues. On another amateur video, cries of “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad ... We have killed Charlie Hebdo!” can clearly be heard.

It is on Boulevard Richard Lenoir that the attackers encounter their last victim. The sequence of events is captured by a third amateur video. On it we can see two men with bulletproof vests and assault rifles get out of their black Citroën and run towards a police officer who has fallen to the ground, presumably hit by a bullet. “Do you want to kill us?” asks one of the shooters. “Nah, it’s all right mate,” replies the officer on the ground. The hooded man runs past him and shoots him in the head with the assault rifle, without breaking his stride. The victim, Ahmed Merabet, 42, was an officer at the 11th arrondissement police station.

Like two men trained for combat, the two killers calmly return to their vehicle showing no sign of panic. The scene resembles a video of a commando training session. One gets behind the wheel, the other takes a moment to pick up a sneaker which had fallen out of the car door, before entering on the passenger side.

Meanwhile, another famed Charlie Hebdo illustrator Willem learns of the tragedy while on a train. A lifelong aversion to weekly editorial meetings saved his life.

Worldcrunch translation by Patrick Randall and Sarah Collings

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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