French court sentences homegrown militant to 30 years in prison for crimes in Syria

PARIS (Reuters) - A Frenchman who converted to Islam and went abroad to fight for Islamic State was sentenced by a Paris court on Friday to 30 years in prison in France’s first successful prosecution of an Islamist militant for crimes committed in Syria.

Tyler Vilus, 30, was arrested in Turkey five years ago as he prepared to catch a flight to Prague. Prosecutors told the court he wanted to lead the squad of gunmen and suicide bombers which attacked Paris in November 2015, but were unable to prove this.

The judges ruled the sentence carried a minimum 20 years in jail.

“By not choosing a life sentence, the court decided to leave you a glimmer of hope for you to evolve,” chief judge Laurent Raviot said.

Vilus, who turned to Islam aged 21, denied any link to the Nov. 13, 2015 attacks but acknowledged for the first time that he left the Syrian battlefield to “die with weapons in his hands.”

“Deep down, I know that when I leave I am going to die. It’s a path with no return,” he told the court, describing his emotions as he departed the caliphate.

The chief prosecutor told the court Vilus trained to kill in Syria so that he could slaughter those he saw as infidels in France.

“Spilling the blood of non-believers for him brings jubilation,” the prosecutor said, adding that Vilus’ connections read like a “Who’s who” of French jihadists abroad.

Vilus fought under the nom-de-guerre Abou Hafs. With few witnesses to call on, the prosecution leaned heavily on videos that Islamic State had disseminated online to attract new recruits.

Although the prosecutors could not prove Vilus had killed people himself, they convinced the court he was part of an organised group which did. Under French law, the punishment is the same.

Among the prosecution’s evidence, one video in which Vilus is clearly identifiable showed two men forced to kneel in a street in eastern Syria before they are executed. Vilus said he stumbled across the scene as he exited a mosque.

Vilus told the court’s five judges he had renounced Islamic State’s murderous ideology.

Editing by Richard Lough, Maya Nikolaeva and Daniel Wallis