BRUSSELS >> The judges were there, the lawyers and the press — so many journalists that there was a spillover room. The only person largely missing from the trial was the high-profile defendant, the only surviving member of the group that carried out terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 and Brussels in 2016.
Salah Abdeslam, 28, who defied a dragnet of French and Belgian police for more than four months as he hid in his hometown haunts after fleeing the attacks in Paris, poked a finger again at authorities, this time in court.
When asked whether he had anything to say or if he would respond to questions, he was brief and clear: “I defend myself by remaining silent.”
He had one more message, he did not believe the court could render a just verdict.
“What I observe is that Muslims are judged, treated in the worst of ways,” he said. “They are judged mercilessly. There is no presumption of innocence, there is nothing, we’re immediately guilty, voilà. My silence does not mean that I am guilty.”
With those few words, and one further sentence, Abdeslam stopped speaking and did not show up for the trial’s second day.
He and another man, Sofian Ayeri, are being prosecuted for shooting and wounding four Belgian and French police officers while Abdeslam was on the run in March 2016.
The start of their trial this week was far from the main event in the Paris and Brussels attacks — the trials pertaining to the central plot are still more than a year away. But Abdeslam’s few words and notable silence may offer a foretaste of an unsatisfying road ahead for authorities and victims’ families and friends.
The approach appeared to be in keeping with that of several other extremists whose attacks have been claimed by the Islamic State in recent years.
They include Ayoub el Khazzani, who attempted to open fire in a Thalys train bound from Amsterdam to Paris in 2015, and Mehdi Nemmouche, who shot and killed four people at the Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014.
Why refuse to participate when it is the best hope of reducing your sentence or even getting off altogether? Abdeslam’s lawyer made a case for his acquittal on several grounds, including the lack of evidence that he pulled the trigger.
“A person who is accused of a crime has everything to lose by remaining silent,” said Francis Vuillemin, the defense lawyer for Nemmouche in France, where his is accused of crimes unrelated to the Jewish museum killings; Vuillemin also represented the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal.
“Because for an accused the best lawyer is not the one in the black robe, but the man himself,” he said, adding that he is the one who can best convince a judicial tribunal of his innocence.
Vuillemin said that although Nemmouche may not have helped Belgian investigators, he expects him to testify in trials he faces in France for acting as the jailer of four French hostages in Syria. Vuillemin said that often defendants choose not to speak to investigators, but do speak at their trials.
However, Abdesalam’s lawyer, Sven Mary, said that while his client was in prison in Belgium soon after his capture, he was in a cell adjacent to Nemmouche. He believes the two communicated and that may have led Abdeslam to change from initially being willing to talk with prosecutors to refusing to do so.
“Isolation in Belgium doesn’t mean you don’t have windows,” Mary said.
“When you have a neighbor, they can talk to each other,” he added. “I don’t think it was the best idea to put him next to someone like that. What I heard from different people was that he played a role in the sudden change in Saleh Abdeslam.”
Other lawyers and experts focused more on Abdeslam’s self-recusal as a political act of defiance, aimed at a particular audience.
It is also one with worrisome implications for both France and Belgium, where his denigration of the idea of an impartial judiciary plays into the already keen sense that many Muslims have that the system is stacked against them.
“It’s one way to reach out to those Muslims who feel rejected by system in the first place,” said Didier Leroy, a research fellow at the Royal Higher Institute for Defense, who has also studied the views of young Muslim extremists.
Leroy said that at this point, the jihadi, extremist “family” is really the only one he has. “He’s trying to assure his own survival in that milieu — it is all about belonging to a group. What else does he have now?”
“Although he wasn’t a particularly religious guy as far as we know, his major focus is to keep the reputation and status in this family that he’s part of or even, by rejecting justice here in Belgium, make himself more significant,” Leroy said.
All the lawyers interviewed as well as Leroy prefaced their remarks by saying that short of being inside Abdeslam’s head, it was impossible to say exactly what he was thinking.
But, then, there was another reason for silence, pointed out Antoine Vey, who recently served as a defense lawyer for Abdulkhader Merah, the brother of Mohammed Merah, who attacked French soldiers and a Jewish school in 2012, in the Toulouse area.
There is a long dissident tradition of refusing to recognize France’s justice system, dating at least to the Algerian war, which resulted in the country’s independence from France, Vey said.
He added that while some defendants remain silent so as not to incriminate themselves, others do so”in keeping with the idea that the trial was a political platform for contesting the authority of the law and the judges.”
“Notably in all the trials that were held during the war in Algeria, those who wanted independence used the trial to explain to the public that they did not recognize French law and that the judges were not judges.”
It also appeared that Abdeslam was pointing to a line of argument and a way of thinking about justice that is very much in the ideological framework of extremist Islamists: True justice can be done only by God and its rules are in the Quran. It follows, then, that a secular court can only be a political forum.
“Salah Abdeslam clearly said one thing,” said Christian Etelin, a French lawyer who represented Mohammed Merah when he was young and recently represented a man who was found guilty of providing Merah with the semi-automatic weapon he used in the 2012 attacks.
“He said that he does not have to account for himself other than to God,” Etelin said. “As a consequence, the justice of men has no ability to understand his approach and judge it.”
Abdeslam’s last words to the court before falling silent were: “I trust in Allah, that is all. I am only accountable to God.”