Surviving suspect in 2015 Paris attacks refuses to answer Belgian court

BRUSSELS: The prime surviving suspect in the 2015 IS attacks in Paris that killed 130 people refused to answer questions when his trial for a separate 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 attacks in the French capital, Salah Abdeslam urged the court not to pander to public anti-Muslim prejudice as he went on trial for a shootout with police in his native Brussels in March 2016.
His black hair shaggy and his beard long, the 28-year-old former barkeeper faces trial in France next year. He is not charged over suicide bombings that struck Brussels four days after he was arrested.
“I am accused, so I am here,” he told presiding judge Marie-France Keutgen after arriving under heavy police escort from Paris on the first day of hearings.
“I will remain silent. That is a right which I have and my silence does not make me a criminal or guilty. That is my defence 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 and refused to stand, 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 IS in Syria.
His refusal to cooperate frustrated those hoping for some closure after the deaths of their relatives in Paris on November 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 emphasised 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 IS attacks in Brussels on March 22, 2016.
Abdeslam had already been arrested then and prosecutors say the three bombers, who killed 32 people, struck then for fear he would reveal their plans under interrogation. Abdeslam was not charged over those attacks.
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 organise 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 that Abdeslam was present in Paris during the attacks. A petty drug dealer, 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.
— Reuters