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The only surviving suspect in the 2015 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, defied Belgian judges on Monday and said he put his “trust in Allah” on the opening day of his trial for a shootout that led to his capture.
The 28-year-old, who was transferred under heavy security from a jail near the French capital overnight for the trial, refused to answer questions about the gunbattle in Brussels or stand for the court.
“I am not afraid of you, I am not afraid of your allies,” said a defiant Abdeslam, who has grown long hair and a beard during his nearly two years behind bars. “I put my trust in Allah and that’s all.”
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The Belgian-born French national of Moroccan descent alleged that the court in Brussels was biased against Muslims as he explained why he would not cooperate despite having asked to attend the trial.
“My silence does not make me a criminal, it’s my defence,” Abdeslam said. “Muslims are judged and treated in the worst of ways, mercilessly. There is no presumption of innocence.”
He also refused to allow photographs or video images to be taken of him.
He has point-blank refused to speak to investigators since his arrest in Brussels March 2016, three days after the gunbattle in the Forest district of the city for which he is on trial.
Abdeslam and Sofiane Ayari, a 24-year-old Tunisian arrested with him, face charges of attempted terrorist murder of police officers and carrying banned weapons.
Three police officers were wounded and an Algerian fellow jihadist was killed.
The pair face up to 40 years in prison if convicted.
– Heavy security –
Abdeslam’s arrest ended four months on the run as Europe’s most wanted man following the November 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people, and in which his brother Brahim carried out a suicide bombing.
Police officers wearing body armour and black balaclavas with eye- and mouth-holes stood guard next to them as the trial started.
Abdeslam, wearing a long-sleeved light shirt and dark trousers, launched into his diatribe after presiding judge Marie-France Keutgen asked why he insisted on attending the trial where he refused to answer questions about the charges against him.
The judge rejected his accusations of bias, insisting he was presumed innocent.
Hundreds of members of Belgian security forces turned the Palais de Justice court building into a virtual fortress while a helicopter with searchlights circled overhead as he arrived.
The non-jury trial is the prelude to a later one in France and prosecutors hope the Brussels case will yield clues not only about the Paris attacks but also the Brussels bombings on March 22, 2016.
Investigators believe Abdeslam’s capture three days after the shootout caused members of his jihadist cell to bring forward plans for the attacks on Brussels airport and a metro station in which 32 people were killed.
Ayari, who is cooperating with authorities, told the judge he knew Ibrahim Bakroui, one of the suicide bombers at Brussels airport, adding he visited the apartment where the shootout occurred.
The same cell is believed to have been behind both the Paris and Brussels attacks, which were claimed by the Islamic State group.
But Ayari — who entered Europe via the Greek islands during the European migration crisis in 2015 — insisted: “I don’t think I am a radical.”
– Manhunt –
The plans for transferring Abdeslam from Fleury-Merogis prison in the Parisian suburbs, and then back to a prison just across the border in northern France every night, were shrouded in secrecy.
Two separate convoys left Fleury-Merogis in the middle of the night with an escort of elite French officers with blue lights flashing, while a third group of unmarked vehicles left shortly afterwards.
The boyish former bar owner has spent nearly 20 months in isolation under 24-hour video surveillance at Fleury-Merogis, after being transferred to France after his arrest.
Police say Abdeslam and Ayari escaped through the back door of the flat in Forest while a third suspect, Algerian Mohamed Belkaid, died while providing covering fire for their escape through a back door.
Police say they found Abdeslam’s fingerprints in the flat, confirming they were on the trail of the last suspect in the rifle and bomb attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, bars, restaurants and the national stadium in the French capital on November 13, 2015.
Abdeslam is reported to have disposed of a suicide belt before fleeing. He is also suspected of being the driver in the attacks.
Three days after the raid, armed officers shot Abdeslam in the leg and captured him and Ayari just yards from Abdeslam’s home in Molenbeek, a gritty Brussels immigrant neighbourhood.
Categories: World News