Europe

Salah Abdeslam trial: Paris attacks suspect lambasts 'anti-Muslim bias'

Salah Abdeslam sits surrounded by Belgian special police officers in the courtroom at the Palais de Justice courthouse in Brussels. Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption Salah Abdeslam is refusing to co-operate with the court

The sole surviving suspect from the 2015 Paris terror attacks refused to speak any further in a Belgian court, where his trial over the gunfight that led to his arrest began on Monday.

Salah Abdeslam said he would not respond to questions from the judge.

"My silence does not make me a criminal, it's my defence," he said.

Abdeslam, 28, claimed that Muslims were "judged and treated in the worst of ways, mercilessly", and said he was placing his trust in Allah.

"I am not afraid of you, I am not afraid of your allies," he added, without making clear who he meant.

He urged the prosecution to base its case on "forensic and tangible evidence", and not to "swagger about to satisfy public opinion".

The trial in Brussels was adjourned until Thursday.

Image copyright Belgian/French police
Image caption Abdeslam was arrested in March 2016 after a shootout with police in Brussels

Abdeslam has refused to speak to investigators since his initial interrogation in March 2016.

What is Abdeslam accused of?

French prosecutors believe Abdeslam played a key role in the Paris attacks, in which gunmen and suicide bombers targeted a concert hall, stadium, restaurants and bars, killing 130 people and injuring hundreds more.

He became Europe's most wanted man after the mass killings, and was captured in Brussels four months later.

The defendant's brother, Brahim, was among the Paris attackers and died in a suicide blast outside a cafe.

Abdeslam is not expected to go on trial in France until 2019 at the earliest.

The charges he faces in Brussels are not related to events in Paris, but to a shootout with police while he was on the run in Belgium.

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Media captionDamian Grammaticas reports from the scene of the raid

Abdeslam and his suspected accomplice Sofien Ayari, 24, are accused of possessing illegal weapons and the attempted murder of police officers in a terrorist context.

The men allegedly fought a gun battle with officers who raided the flat where they were holed up, in the Molenbeek district of Brussels.

The Belgian prosecutor, Kathleen Grosjean, said she was seeking the maximum of 20 years' imprisonment for each of them.

In court on Monday, Ayari said he had fought for the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) in Syria, and that both he and Abdeslam were present during the standoff.

The prosecutor has said she does not believe Abdeslam actually fired any weapons.

She explained that two Kalashnikovs had been used during the clash. The first shooter is known to be Algerian national Mohamed Belkaid, who was subsequently shot by special police. The prosecution believes the second shooter is Ayari due to DNA found on the weapon.

However, this would not affect Abdeslam's potential sentence, due to the "indispensable aid" he allegedly gave Ayari and Belkaid.

From the courtroom: Damian Grammaticas, BBC News, in Brussels

Image copyright BENOIT PEYRUCQ/AFP/Getty Images
Image caption A courtroom sketch of Abdeslam, who is refusing to have pictures or video taken of him

Salah Abdeslam entered the court silently, all eyes trained on him. On either side of Abdeslam stood police guards wearing balaclavas.

The photographs released by police during the four-month manhunt for him following the Paris attacks had shown a clean-shaven young man with short-cropped hair. Now his hair was longer, almost shoulder length. In prison he's also grown a beard.

The old photos showed a slim, seemingly relaxed-looking man, the air of a swagger about him. Now he moved a little hesitantly. He said nothing. When the judge asked him to confirm his identity Abdeslam, wearing a white jacket, did not respond. She asked again. He had to be coaxed to acknowledge his own name.

The judge explained to the court that Abdeslam did not want his picture to be shown, so any filming of him was prohibited.

The man who prosecutors say was a willing part of a murderous gang that killed 130 people in Paris was unwilling now to show his face, or even to speak up in front of the court. He has also refused to talk to prosecutors, or even lawyers representing him.

As his co-accused Sofien Ayari stood to answer questions about his time in Syria, and the automatic weapons they had kept in a flat in Brussels, Abdeslam sat in silence. For now he seems determined to divulge nothing about his role, or anything else connected to the attacks.

Who gets Abdeslam, France or Belgium?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Abdeslam is being transported between a French prison and a Belgian court for this trial

Abdeslam, a French citizen born to Moroccan parents in Brussels, has been held at a prison near Paris. He left the facility under armed guard in the early hours of Monday, accompanied by tactical police vehicles.

He will return to France every night during the trial, but will be held at another jail just across the border.

Up to 200 police will be guarding the courthouse for the trial.

Is his silence a major obstacle?

The right to silence is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, but it is not an absolute right.

European human rights law says a defendant's decision to remain silent can be taken into account when assessing the prosecution's evidence. That is especially so "in situations which clearly call for an explanation from him [the defendant]".

Observers say that given other suspects have spoken and co-operated with the police, Abdeslam's silence won't necessarily hurt the prosecution's case.

But if he remains silent on the Paris attacks too, it would "be horrible for the victims' families", said Guy Van Vlierden, a Belgian journalist specialising in security and terrorism issues.

What happened in the Paris attacks?

  • Three explosions outside the Stade de France stadium in the north of Paris on 13 November 2015 as suicide attackers were prevented from entering.

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