The opening of the long-awaited trial of 20 people accused of involvement in the 2015 wave of terror attacks in Paris was interrupted when the main suspect accused French authorities of treating them “like dogs”.
In an outburst Wednesday that angered survivors and victims’ families, Salah Abdeslam jumped up in the dock, removed his mask and pointed to the President of the Court.
“We should be treated like human beings. We’re not dogs,” he said.
When the lead judge, Jean-Louis Périès, tried to interrupt him, Abdeslam, 31, continued: ‘It’s nice here, there are flat screens, air conditioning but over there [prison] we are abused, we are like dogs.”
The claim drew fury from the back of the court, where a voice replied, “And we, we suffered 130 deaths, you bastard.”
For almost six years, the survivors of the terrorist attacks in Paris and relatives of the 130 people killed have been waiting for answers from Abdeslam. And for almost six years, the man accused of being the sole surviving member of the group of jihadists who carried out the killings in the French capital has maintained a stubborn and almost complete silence. In court on Wednesday, Abdeslam remained silent apart from his complaint of ill-treatment.
Shortly after it was declared that “the criminal hearing is open” and a marathon, nine-month trial began, the prime suspect, wearing a black mask and black T-shirt, was the first of the 14 defendants to arrive to judge court.
When asked his name, he removed his mask to reveal a thick beard. “First of all, I would like to say that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.”
“Yes, we’ll get to that later,” Périès replied.
The suspect gave September 15, 1989 as his date of birth. Asked for his address, Abdeslam said he didn’t have one. His parents’ names? “My father’s and mother’s names have nothing to do with it.”
When asked about his job, he replied: “I gave up all my jobs to become a soldier with the Islamic State.”
Later, Victor Edou, a lawyer for eight Bataclan survivors, described the statement as “very violent” towards his clients.
“Some of them are not doing so well… after hearing a statement that they saw as a new, direct threat,” Edou said. “It will be like this for nine months.”
Others said they tried not to attach much importance to the comment. “I’m not afraid,” said Thierry Mallet, a Bataclan survivor.
The November 13, 2015 attacks killed 130 people and injured hundreds more. Fourteen suspects were in the dock; six others are being tried in absentia, five of them presumed dead in Iraq or Syria and the last in prison in Turkey.
After the other defendants were asked to identify themselves and the names of the absent suspects were read, Périès told the court: “Today we begin a historic, unusual trial. Certainly historical, because they are events engraved in our collective memory; certainly unusual given the number of victims, civilians involved and lawyers.
“But we need to integrate the normal right away, particularly the rights of defence. The function of this court is to bring the charges against the people sent here, listening to everyone: the civil parties, the prosecution, the defense. We have to keep all this in mind; I know I can count on you.”
Eleven of the accused were driven from four different prisons for the trial at the Palace of Justice, where 300 lawyers and some 300 of the 1,750 civil parties, including survivors, victims’ families and those directly affected by the attacks, will be heard. Périès will preside over the court along with eight other professional judges.
The courtroom, a makeshift structure within the courthouse, is the scene of the largest criminal trial ever in France. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the series of coordinated attacks, which included a suicide bombing at the Stade de France and a massacre at the Bataclan concert hall, as well as shootings from passing cars and suicide bombings in cafes and restaurants.
About 1,000 police and gendarmes were reportedly deployed to maintain security and cordon off the area around the Palais de Justice on an island in the Seine, diverting vehicles, pedestrians and buses.
Abdeslam, a Brussels-born French national, is said to have played a central role in the international logistics operation involving the jihadists returning to Europe from Syria. He is said to have escorted the three bombers who blew themselves up at the Stade de France. He is suspected of planning a suicide attack in Paris’ 18th arrondissement and then backing down. Police found a suicide vest they believe he intended to use in a trash can.
Days after his arrest in March 2016 following a four-month manhunt that ended in a shootout with police in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, a Brussels suburb, suicide bombers believed to be part of the same cell struck at Brussels airport and airport to Metro, killing 32 and injuring hundreds.
Abdeslam’s brother blew himself up in a Paris bar attack. Also on trial is Mohamed Abrini, 36, Abdeslam’s childhood friend who is believed to have traveled to the Paris region with the attackers, who was later caught on video with the two Brussels airport bombers.