BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The prime surviving suspect in the Islamic State attacks in Paris that killed 130 people refused to answer questions when his trial for a later shooting incident opened on Monday in Belgium, defying his accusers and relatives of the victims.
In his first appearance since his capture four months after the November 2015 attacks in the French capital, Salah Abdeslam urged the court not to pander to anti-Muslim prejudice as he went on trial for a shootout with police in his native Brussels.
His black hair shaggy and beard long, a contrast to the slick, clean-shaven young man last seen on wanted posters across Europe, the 28-year-old former barkeeper faces trial in France next year. And he is not charged over Islamist suicide bombings which struck Brussels four days after he was arrested.
“I am accused, so I am here,” he told the judge after arriving under heavy police escort from Paris.
Refusing to stand or to answer questions, he said: “My silence does not make me a criminal or guilty. That is my defense and I am defending myself by remaining silent.”
Reciting the Islamic profession of faith and flanked by two masked Belgian counter-terrorism police officers, he said Muslims were treated “without mercy” and presumed guilty:
“Judge me. Do as you want with me,” he added. “It is in my Lord that I place my trust. I am not afraid of you.”
He complained of being tired but his voice was firm as he spoke after a morning listening to his co-accused, who admitted to being with Abdeslam during the March 15, 2016, shootout and to have fought with Islamic State in Syria.
His refusal to cooperate frustrated some at the court whose relatives died in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015:
“Not only did he say he is retreating into silence but he is clearly trying to provoke people by saying he believes only in his god,” said Philippe Duperron, whose son was killed at the Bataclan music hall and who now chairs a families’ association.
Abdeslam’s lawyer emphasized the narrow scope of this first trial by challenging a court move to extend privileges for interested parties to the trial to a group for victims of Islamic State attacks in Brussels on March 22, 2016.
Although Abdeslam was already in custody by then and has not been charged over that case, officials believe he was linked to the three bombers. They say the cell brought forward an attack, which killed 32 people, because they feared Abdeslam would reveal their plans under interrogation.
The first day of the trial over the shootout in a southern area of Brussels called Forest heard no evidence directly linked to the Paris attacks. By the time of the incident, Abdeslam had been hiding out in his hometown for four months after fleeing Paris on the night his elder brother blew himself up at a cafe.
Prosecutors who accuse Abdeslam of helping organize the attacks and ferry former fighters from Syria around Europe say he, too, would have died if his suicide vest had not failed to detonate. His lawyers do not dispute Abdeslam was in Paris during the attacks. He then relied on a network of acquaintances to evade police back in Belgium.
They finally stumbled across him when, with French officers, they went to inspect a suspect apartment in Forest. They came under a hail of gunfire which wounded four of them.
After a three-hour siege ended with marksmen killing a 35-year-old Algerian called Mohamed Belkaid, police found an arms cache and, crucially, Abdeslam’s DNA.
That finally led to his arrest three days later at another apartment, in the district of Molenbeek close to his family home. Also detained was his current co-accused, Sofien Ayari, a 24-year-old Tunisian.
Prosecutors say Abdeslam and Ayari fled the Forest flat while Belkaid held off police. Ayari’s defense on Monday was that he and Abdeslam did not open fire before fleeing. The prosecutor, however, sought 20 years in prison for both, saying they took part in a joint operation to ambush the officers.
The trial was adjourned until Thursday.
Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Richard Balmforth