The prime surviving suspect in the 2015 Islamic State attacks on Paris refused to answer questions as his trial in Belgium over a shooting that preceded his arrest started in Brussels on Monday.
Salah Abdeslam, his long black hair and beard a stark contrast to the cropped, clean-shaven young man familiar across Europe from wanted posters during his four months on the run, was asked by the judge to identify himself.
Appearing in public for the first time since the November 2015 attacks and his arrest in Brussels four months later, the 28-year-old remained seated, flanked by two masked Belgian police officers.
“I do not wish to answer questions,” Abdeslam said.
After a first session during which his alleged accomplice – Sofien Ayari, a 24-year-old Tunisian – admitted to having fought for Islamic State in Syria and said that both accused were present during a March 2016 shootout with Brussels police, the judge again asked Abdeslam to speak.
Citing his right to silence and declaring his Muslim faith, Abdeslam accused the media of condemning him before his trial. “Judge me. Do as you want with me,” he told the judge.
“I put my trust in my Lord.
“I remain silent. That is a right which I have,” he said, adding: “My silence does not make me a criminal or guilty.
“I am defending myself by remaining silent.
“What I notice is that Muslims are judged and treated in the worst kind of ways,” he added. “They are judged without mercy. There is no presumption of innocence, there’s nothing.”
Abdeslam’s trial in France is not expected until next year. He was not charged over the Islamic State suicide bombings in Brussels a week after the shootout and four days after his arrest ― though prosecutors say the March 22 attacks, which killed 32 people, were triggered by the cell’s fear that Abdeslam might reveal plans for a new attack in France under interrogation.
Abdeslam arrived under heavy guard from France, where he has been held under 24-hour suicide watch near Paris. He will spend the nights of the coming week of Belgian hearings in a high-security French prison just across the border.
Ayari and Abdeslam face up to 40 years in prison for attempted murder in relation to terrorism. When police hunting for the Paris suspects went to an apartment in the southern Brussels borough of Forest, those inside opened fire, wounding three officers. The two accused are alleged to have fled, leaving a third gunman to hold off police until he was shot dead.
Four days later, Abdeslam and Ayari were arrested in the western Brussels borough of Molenbeek, close to the former’s family home. A French citizen, Abdeslam was born and raised among the Belgian capital’s large Moroccan immigrant community.
Lawyers for Abdeslam accept that he was in Paris on Friday, 13 November 2015, when gunmen and suicide bombers killed 130 at the Bataclan concert hall, near the national stadium and at cafes and restaurants.
His elder brother, with whom he ran a bar in Brussels, was among those who blew himself up. Prosecutors believe the younger Abdeslam, whom they accuse of running logistics for the attack including ferrying fighters from Syria across Europe, would have met the same fate had his explosive vest not malfunctioned.
How the pair, from a broadly secular background with a history of petty crime, were transformed into alleged cogs within extensive Islamic State cells operating in Belgium and France is unclear. A third brother, who has visited Abdeslam in prison, told a Belgian newspaper in December that he might be preparing to talk, inspired by a devout religious faith.
The trial had been due to start in late December but was delayed after Abdeslam belatedly reappointed a defence counsel, which then requested more time to prepare the case. Lawyers do not rule out further adjournments this week.
The trial has triggered a high alert in Brussels. More than 100 police are expected to be deployed in and around the 19th-century Palace of Justice, which dominates the skyline over the city centre.