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First hearing for Salah Abdeslam

Wolfgang Dick/ ctMay 20, 2016

The surviving suspect in November's attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people, has appeared before a French court for his first hearing. However, Salah Abdeslam refused to answer any questions, officials said.

Salah Abdeslam Fahndungsfoto
Image: Police Federale Belgien

The 26-year-old Abdeslam was brought to the central Paris courthouse under heavy security for his hearing on Friday, but the appointment was soon cut short, according to his lawyers.

"From the start he made clear he would be exercising his right to silence, refusing to respond to questions from the judge," prosecutor's office told the Reuters news agency.

Abdeslam's lawyer Frank Berton said his defendant was prepared to speak at "a later date."

"We need to give him time," Berton added.

Abdeslam also refused to "give his reasons for using his right to silence" or confirm statements he previously made to the Belgian authorities, French prosecutors said.

Officials hoped that Abdeslam would reveal important details about the "Islamic State" network in Europe.

The alleged jihadist is on trial for the worst terror attack in France's history. On November 13, 2015, suicide bombers and gunmen attacked cafes, the national football stadium and the Bataclan concert hall during a performance by the group Eagles of Death Metal. The massacre left 130 people dead and 350 injured, some critically.

Frankreich Paris Justizpalast Militäraufgebot bei Befragung von Terrorverdächtigem Salah Abdeslam
Abdeslam was escorted to the court by special police forces and military policeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/E. Laurent

The defendant is so far implicated in the logistics of the attacks, standing accused of renting a car and chauffeuring the perpetrators to the sites of their massacres. Authorities were impressed that they were able to capture Abdeslam alive after he spent four months as Europe's most-wanted man. Police stopped him three times on the night of the attacks as he fled Paris for his hometown of Brussels. Police checked the IDs of Abdeslam and his passengers and even took down his address in Molenbeek, but nothing further happened.

Lost job as mechanic

Abdeslam had known Abelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged ringleader of the attacks, since their childhood in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek. The defendant's parents moved from Algeria to Belgium in the 1960s. The defendant has a sister and two brothers, one of whom also took part in the attacks in Paris. Ibrahim Abdeslam blew himself up in front of a cafe, killing at least one person directly.

It is impossible to say when exactly Abdeslam became radicalized. He had been fired from a job as a mechanic at a Brussels transport office for missing work too frequently. Though Abdeslam committed burglaries and used some drugs, people interviewed by Belgian police described him as a polite young man, unremarkable and not aggressive, interested in cars and football.

Sven Mary, Abdeslam's Belgian lawyer, told the French newspaper Liberation that Abdeslam was "abysmally empty," with "the intelligence of an empty ashtray." What Mary meant was that Salah was incapable of planning a large-scale attack that required military precision; he just didn't have the mental foresight to carry it out. Ultimately, it didn't appear that Abdeslam had the fortitude, either: Like his brother and the other men, he had been meant to detonate himself, but he threw his suicide belt into a garbage can - only to be identified later by his fingerprints.

Belgien Zeitung Het Nieuwsblad Salah Abdeslam
Abdeslam is said to have provided logistical help for the attacks in both Paris and BrusselsImage: picture-alliance/maxpp/A. Marchi

Too much pizza

"We got him," Belgian Asylum and Immigration Minister Theo Francken wrote on Twitter on March 18. Abdeslam had been captured by the police in an apartment on Vierwindenstraat, just a few hundred meters from his parents' home in Molenbeek. He had ordered pizza in a remarkably large quantity and asked for it to be delivered to an apartment that was supposedly inhabited by a single woman. At the time, Interpol was running tight surveillance program on the neighborhood. The police pounced on the suspicious pizza delivery; gunfire was exchanged.

During the arrest, a note fell out of Abdeslam's pants pocket. Was it the plans for a further attack? A list of more terrorists in Europe? That's what the French authorities want to find out at Friday's hearing in France, where Abdeslam was extradited to at the end of April and where he is being held in solitary confinement in a high-security prison near Paris.

In Friday's hearing, Abdeslam is expected to face questions about the terror network run by the "Islamic State" (IS) in Europe. Of special interest is the series of short car trips that Abdeslam took to Budapest, Hungary, and Ulm, Germany. Interpol reported that those trips included just a 40-minute stopover in each city.

Belgien Brüssel Molenbeek Festnahme Terrorist Salah Abdeslam
Abdeslam was arrested in the Brussels district of MolenbeekImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/VTM

According to evidence presented by Belgian prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw, Abdeslam was planning further attacks in Belgium. He is even said to have confirmed that in his first interrogation, and weaponry discovered in his apartment cast little doubt on that. Just four days later, suicide bombers also claiming allegiance to IS struck at Brussels Airport and at a subway station, killing 30 people.

Just three weeks before the attacks in Paris, the 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam posed with an IS flag for videos posted to various social media platforms; at the time, he wasn't even on the radar of Europe's security services. As a result, officials now believe, Adbeslam could easily slip in and out of Syria. He returned to Belgium after traveling via Greece last August - just three months before the deadly attacks in Paris.