PARIS (AP) — The weapons stockpile in his hideout and the Islamic State fighter covering his getaway with a spray of gunfire were signs of a deadly plot to come, a Belgian prosecutor argued Thursday in the trial of the man who was once Europe’s most wanted fugitive.
Salah Abdeslam refused to attend the final day of his trial in Brussels for a March 15, 2016, shootout with police that ultimately led to his capture.
He left his prison cell in France on Monday — the first public glimpse of the man linked to plots in Paris and Brussels that killed a total of 162 people. But Abdeslam refused to stand for the judge and told her he wouldn’t answer her questions.
“My silence is my defense,” he said Monday, flanked by masked officers in a heavily guarded courtroom.
On Thursday, the lawyer who once quit defending him in frustration pleaded his case once more.
The getaway shooting that left three police officers injured, Sven Mary argued, “was a spontaneous act, not a terrorist act,” and that the time to try the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks was in 2020 in Paris, not now in Brussels.
Abdeslam and Sofiane Ayari, a former IS fighter, are charged with attempted murder in a terrorist context and face 20 years in prison. Their lawyers said only the jihadi they left behind to die in the apartment fired on officers as they ran across the rooftops, broke into an apartment and escaped into the Brussels streets.
“We know that they were stockpiling weapons in preparation for terrorist attacks. So if they fled it was only because they had other plans,” Kathleen Grosjean, the prosecutor, said according to the public broadcaster RTBF .
Abdeslam and Ayari were captured on March 18, 2016, in Abdeslam’s home neighborhood of Molenbeek. Grainy video from that day showed him limping into a waiting police car, a gunshot wound to the leg.
Four days later, IS suicide bombers struck the Brussels metro and airport.
The trial in Brussels hinged on who fired a second weapon involved in the shootout: Ayari, Abdeslam or the dead jihadi, Mohamed Belkaid.
Mary said Abdeslam wasn’t responsible for either opening fire or for inciting the shooting.
“Nothing allows us to say that Salah Abdeslam provoked Belkaid into firing on the officers,” Mary said.
He also requested that the entire case be dismissed because court orders were written in French, and not in Dutch as required under Belgian law. Belgium is linguistically divided but Abdeslam is a native French speaker.
Hopes had been high that Abdeslam, who has refused to speak to an investigating judge in France, would shed light on the sprawling network of IS supporters who carried out the attacks in Paris and Brussels. His defiant refusal, however, came as less of a surprise than his decision to attend in the first place.
Abdeslam, who is in solitary confinement in France, has grown his hair and beard long in the fashion of many IS fighters. To his lawyer’s apparent dismay, he told the judge he didn’t recognize the authority of the court.
“I am tired,” he said, looking straight ahead. For the entire day of testimony, his gaze didn’t flag.
Authorities say Abdeslam was armed with a suicide belt that reportedly malfunctioned the night of Nov. 13, 2015. He fled Paris with the help of friends and spent four months on the run — with Ayari and others.
Abdeslam’s brother, Brahim, died in a suicide attack in Paris. Their childhood friend, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was killed five days later in a police standoff outside the French capital.
Ayari has said little, but denied that he had fired the Kalashnikov the pair escaped with. Instead, his lawyer, Isa Gultaslar, indicated Thursday that the IS fighter who was killed in the shootout had been the only man firing on the officers in the police raid, despite the usual stated wish of the group’s combatants to die as “martyrs.”
“One thing is clear, Mr. Ayari did not wish to die or cause even worse carnage,” Gultaslar said.
A lawyer for the police, Valerie Lefevre, said Ayari and Abdeslam both were members of the group that attacked Paris and Brussels.
“The objective is clear: to intimidate the population and destabilize our country,” Lefevre said. “Abdeslam’s letters are eloquent, and prove that well.”
In an email found in a computer trashed by one of the dead Brussels bombers, Abdeslam reportedly wrote about his disappointment when his suicide belt failed the night of Nov. 13. It was found discarded on the outskirts of Paris, near where French authorities say friends picked him up to take him back home.
In the message, Abdeslam wrote that although he dreamed of going to Syria, “upon reflection, I concluded that the best thing would be to finish the job with the brothers.”
Tom Bauwens, another lawyer for the police officers, said he was fed up with Abdeslam’s attempt to turn justice in his favor.
“Salah Abdeslam is too tired to stand up, but he makes a mockery of this tribunal,” said Bauwens. “He says, ‘I don’t care about your laws’ but he relies upon our laws nonetheless in saying ‘I have the right not to speak, the right to silence.'”
By LORI HINNANT
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