BRUSSELS, Feb 6 — Escorted by two giant Belgian policemen in balaclavas, a handcuffed Salah Abdeslam entered a Belgian courtroom, his beard now thick and his hair long and slicked down.
Hopes were high that, after insisting on attending the trial, the 28-year-old sole survivor of the Paris attacks cell would take the opportunity break nearly two years of silence about the bloodshed.
But when he did speak it was not to offer any explanations. Instead, he refused to answer all questions from the judge, and then launched into a tirade in the name of Islam.
“I don’t wish to reply,” Abdeslam mumbled in a faint voice when presiding judge Marie-France Keutgen instructed him to stand.
“At least questions about your identity?” she asked, but the Belgian-born Frenchman of Moroccan origin repeated that he would not answer any questions, before falling back into silence.
It was a homecoming of sorts, Abdeslam’s return to the city of his birth where he was dramatically shot in the leg and captured after four months on the run following the Paris attacks.
He was on trial over a shootout with police on March 15, 2016, in which three officers were wounded, with a trial in France over the November 2015 Islamic State attacks in the French capital expected at a later date.
‘I was asked to come, I came’
The youthful face with gelled spiky hair that appeared on television screens worldwide was now covered in a thick beard, his hair matted and glistening with gel.
His grey jacket, white shirt, dark trousers and brown dress shoes contrasted with the hooded track top of his co-defendant, Sofiane Ayari.
As his handcuffs were removed, he frowned, brushed his hair back with both hands and sat down. He blew his nose and turned to speak to his lawyer, Sven Mary, but gave no impression he was listening to the hearing.
Then, after Ayari, a 24-year-old Tunisian, answered a series of questions from the judge, Abdeslam got another chance.
“I do not want to respond. I am tired,” said the high-profile defendant, still seated, but his voice hinting at anger.
The presiding judge persisted, saying: “You wanted to be present today” — but again he refused.
When Keutgen asked why he insisted on being present, he shrugged.
“I was asked to come. I came, very simply,” he replied.
“My silence neither makes me a criminal nor a guilty person.”
Then, despite his vow of silence, Abdeslam could not helping himself from launching into a diatribe.
“Now that there is scientific proof in this case, I want it to be based on that and that you are not swayed by satisfying public opinion,” he told the judges, adding that they should not “give up their function to the media.”
‘Trust in Allah’
He then turned to his religion.
“What I see is that Muslims are judged and treated in the worst of ways, mercilessly. There is no presumption of innocence,” he said.
He declared the Muslim profession of faith — the Shahada — before the court, saying: “I declare that there is no god but Allah, Mohammed is his servant and his messenger.”
“Judge me, do what you want with me, it’s in my Lord that I place my trust,” he said.
“I am not afraid of you, I am not afraid of your allies. I put my trust in Allah and that’s all, I have nothing else to add,” Abdeslam told the court.
The judge said curtly that the court “takes note” of his response.
Handcuffed, he was led back to his cell during the lunch break by the police. They did not take their eyes off him once.
Relatives of victims of the Paris attacks who attended the trial were neither surprised, nor impressed.
“I personally never thought he would cooperate with the Belgian courts, no more than he cooperated with the French courts,” said Philippe Duperron, whose son Thomas was killed in the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.
Duperron said Abdeslam only showed his “incoherent behaviour”.
He added: “He did not reply other than with a provocative statement, by appealing to his god Allah.” — AFP