A shootout with Belgian police that led to the capture of Europe’s most-wanted man may have been criminal but it was not terrorism, his lawyer has argued.
Salah Abdeslam, who is accused of fleeing in the aftermath of the November 13 2015 Islamic State attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, refused to attend Thursday’s hearing in Brussels.
Lawyers for him and the other defendant, Sofiane Ayari, argued that the March 15 2016 shootout that led to their capture was not linked to terrorism, but was rather a spontaneous attempt at a getaway.
They also each denied that their clients fired on police.
A third jihadi, who opened fire on police as the pair escaped through a window, was killed. Three police officers were injured.
Abdeslam and Ayari were captured a few days later.
On March 22 2016, IS suicide bombers then struck the Brussels metro and airport. A total of 162 people died in the November 2015 attacks in Paris and the subsequent March 2016 bombings in Brussels.
Abdeslam and Ayari are charged with attempted murder in a terrorist context. Prosecutors have asked for the maximum 20-year prison term.
Abdeslam’s lawyer, Sven Mary, said that the getaway shooting “was a spontaneous act, not a terrorist act”, and that the time to try the Paris attacks was in 2020 in Paris, not now in Brussels.
The trial in Brussels hinged on who fired a second weapon involved in the shootout: Ayari, Abdeslam or the dead jihadi, Mohamed Belkaid.
Mr Mary said Abdeslam was not 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,” Mr 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.
Authorities say Abdeslam was armed with a suicide belt that reportedly malfunctioned on the night of November 13 2015. He fled Paris with the help of friends and spent four months on the run – with Ayari and others.
But on Monday – Abdeslam’s first public appearance since his capture – he refused to stand and would not testify, telling the judge that silence would be his defense.
Ayari has said little, but denied that he had fired the Kalashnikov the pair escaped with.
Instead, his lawyer Isa Gultaslar indicated 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 IS combatants to die as “martyrs”.
“One thing is clear, Mr Ayari did not wish to die or cause even worse carnage,” Mr Gultaslar said, according to Belgian public broadcaster RTBF.
A lawyer for the police, Valerie Lefevre, said Ayari and Abdeslam were both members of the group that attacked Paris and Brussels.
“The objective is clear: to intimidate the population and destabilise our country,” Ms Lefevre said.