Salah Abdeslam, sentenced to life in prison in France for the November 13, 2015 attacks, refused Monday to appear in Brussels at the trial of the March 2016 attacks in the Belgian capital by the same jihadist cell.
The 32-year-old French jihadist, who is one of 10 defendants at the trial, was extracted from his cell even though, according to his lawyers, he was not planning to appear at the procedural hearing.
A few minutes after the opening of the hearing, around 9:30 a.m. local time, he wished to leave the box, AFP noted. “The way you treat us, it is unfair,” he denounced to the president.
He was referring to the conditions of appearance in individual closed and glazed boxes, compared to “cages” by the defense lawyers, and limiting the possibilities of communication according to them. Several lawyers were planning on Monday to ask for their “demolition”.
On Monday morning, the nine defendants scheduled to appear were all extracted from prison (a tenth, presumed dead in Syria, is tried in absentia). But several immediately criticized the boxes after appearing in court.
“We’re like dogs here,” thundered Tunisian Sofien Ayari, Abdeslam’s escape accomplice, as he pounded his fist against the wall of his box.
While he had initially expressed a wish to stay, Salah Abdeslam, with a thin beard and a blue and white striped polo shirt, changed his mind when he saw that Mohamed Abrini, Sofien Ayari and other co-defendants were being escorted from their box.
He told the president, I know it is not your decision, these boxes, but because of this the trial is starting unfairly. Most of the defendants do not want to appear, so I will join them in the cells of the justice building, he added. Only three defendants agreed to stay.
On the morning of March 22, 2016, two jihadists blew themselves up at the Brussels-Zaventem international airport, and a third one a big hour later in the European capital’s subway. The toll: 32 dead and more than 340 injured.
At this stage, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office has counted 960 civil parties, injured people or relatives of victims claiming compensation for damages, in the largest trial ever organized in Belgium before a popular jury.
The investigation quickly revealed, thanks in particular to a computer found in a garbage can, that the perpetrators of the March 22 attacks were linked to those of November 13 (130 dead in Paris and Saint-Denis), members of the same cell of the armed group Islamic State, most of which was formed on Belgian soil.
It was likely the arrest of Salah Abdeslam on March 18, 2016, in Brussels that precipitated the actions of the other members of the cell.
For this trial, which is being held in the former Brussels headquarters of NATO, converted into a vast judicial complex, the proceedings are not due to open until October. But a preliminary hearing was to be held on Monday to settle various procedural points, and in particular to determine the order in which the witnesses will take the stand, a priori until June 2023.
The beginning of something else
Speaking about the boxes, the lawyer of Mohamed Abrini the “man in the hat” who abandoned his explosives cart at the airport before fleeing – expressed his “shame”, his “deep disgust”.
Madam President, destroy this thing we can not hold a trial in these conditions, do not tolerate it! You have the power to dismantle them, dismantle them protested Stanislas Eskenazi.
The Federal Prosecutor’s Office, on the other hand, had to defend the installation of such structures, which in its view were justified for security reasons.
In Brussels, six of the ten defendants, including Abdeslam, Abrini, Ayari and Osama Krayem (who had turned back with his explosives after entering the metro), were already involved in the November 13 show trial in Paris that ended in late June.
All but one of them are facing murder in a terrorist context and life imprisonment. The Belgian-Moroccan Ibrahim Farisi is on trial for “participation in the activities of a terrorist group and faces up to ten years in prison, according to one of his lawyers.
Victims see the trial as a key step in their reconstruction.
We hope that our suffering will be recognized and that this marks the beginning of something else, Philippe Vandenberghe, a volunteer rescuer who intervened at the airport and suffers from post-traumatic stress, told AFP.