Paris suspect attacks treatment of Muslims
Saleh Abdeslam, once Europe's most wanted man and the last surviving suspect of the 2015 Paris terror attacks, has accused European courts of denying Muslims the presumption of innocence, as he refused to answer questions on the first day of his trial in Belgium over the shootout that led to his capture.
"My silence does not make me a criminal, it's my defence," he said after claiming he had put his trust in Allah and that Muslims were "judged mercilessly" in Europe.
"I am not afraid of you, I am not afraid of your allies," Mr Abdeslam (28) told the court.
Sitting flanked by two armed and masked counter-terrorism policemen, his black hair and beard long, he added: "Let them base their case on forensic and tangible evidence, and not swagger about to satisfy public opinion.
"What I notice is that Muslims are judged and treated in the worst kind of ways. They are judged without mercy. There is no presumption of innocence, there's nothing."
Earlier, he was transported in a midnight police convoy by elite officers from his cell in the Fleury-Mérogis prison near Paris, France, to the imposing Palais De Justice court building in Brussels, which was transformed into a fortress for the four-day trial.
Two separate convoys left Fleury-Mérogis 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.
Mr Abdeslam will be transferred between the Belgian court and a French prison just across the border in northern France every night.
Some 200 police officers were inside the Palais de Justice, carrying out stringent security checks on everyone entering the building. A police sniffer dog checked the austere courtroom itself, into which journalists were banned from taking phones and computers and a helicopter circled above more officers outside.
Mr Abdeslam has refused point-blank to speak to investigators throughout the nearly two years since his arrest, which capped a four-month manhunt that ended three days after the March 15, 2016 gun battle in the Forest district of Brussels that is the focus of the trial.
The former bar owner has spent nearly 20 months in isolation under 24-hour video surveillance at Fleury-Mérogis, after being transferred to France after his arrest.
The Belgian-born French national of Moroccan descent insisted on attending the Brussels trial, raising hopes he would use it to break his silence and surrender clues about the Paris attacks that killed 130 people and the suicide bombings months later in Brussels.
At the trial, Mr Abdeslam, flanked by special forces, dashed those hopes. Bearded and wearing a white polo shirt, he refused to stand when named by a judge and indicated he would not answer any questions.
Mr Abdeslam and Tunisian national Sofiane Ayari (24) face terrorism charges of attempted murder of police officers and carrying banned weapons over a gun battle in the Forest district of Brussels on March 15, 2016.
Three police officers were wounded and a jihadist was killed in the shootout, which came as Mr Abdeslam, who has refused to allow photos or videos to be taken of him during the trial, was on the run four months after the Paris attacks.
After a three-hour siege ended with marksmen killing a 35-year-old Algerian called Mohamed Belkaid, police found an arms cache and, crucially, Mr 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.
He was captured with Mr Ayari, after being shot in the leg by officers. Mr Ayari has agreed to answer prosecutors' questions about the shootout.
Prosecutors say Mr Abdeslam and Mr Ayari fled the Forest flat while Mr Belkaid held off police. Mr Ayari's defence yesterday was that he and Mr Abdeslam were bystanders. They did not open fire before fleeing and so were innocent of the attempted terrorist murder charge.
The two men could serve up to 40 years in prison, if convicted in the non-jury trial, which is being overseen by three judges, which is a prelude to a later French trial over the terror attacks in Paris.
"This must remain an ordinary trial," said Luc Hennart, who presides over the court. "If there is the slightest problem I will order the courtroom to be evacuated."
Investigators believe Mr Abdeslam's capture three days after the shootout caused members of his jihadist cell to bring forward plans for the attacks in Brussels.
Suicide attacks on March 22, 2016, killed 32 people at Brussels airport and a metro station near the headquarters of the European Commission.
The same cell is believed to have been behind both the Paris and Brussels attacks, which were claimed by Isil.
Police said Mr Abdeslam and Mr Ayari were holed up at the Forest flat when it was raided by French and Belgian police in a routine operation after the Paris attacks.
Belkaid (33) died while providing covering fire for their escape through a back door.
Police said they found Mr 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.
Mr Abdeslam is reported to have disposed of a suicide belt before fleeing. He is also suspected of being the driver in the attacks, in which his brother Brahim was one of the suicide bombers.
Mr Ayari entered Europe in September 2015 via the Greek island of Lesbos at the height of a migration crisis gripping the continent, and was one of dozens of suspected jihadists ferried around Europe by Mr Abdeslam.
© Daily Telegraph London