BRUSSELS — The man accused of being a would-be Islamic State attacker who was once Europe’s most wanted fugitive defied a Belgian court Monday, refusing to rise or answer questions during his first public appearance since his arrest nearly two years ago.
Salah Abdeslam is facing attempted murder charges in Brussels from a police shootout four months after the Paris attacks. Abdeslam and an accomplice fled while another man sprayed automatic gunfire and was killed. The pair was captured a few days later in the same neighborhood where Abdeslam and many of the dead attackers grew up.
Abdeslam arrived in the Belgian capital Monday morning after being transferred from a prison in France. Security was high at the Brussels courthouse, with armed guards and multiple checkpoints leading to the courtroom.
“I do not wish to respond to any questions. I was asked to come. I came,” said Abdeslam, who stayed seated for the hearing, flanked by police in balaclavas. “I defend myself by keeping silent.”
Asked why he was refusing to stand, Abdeslam said: “I’m tired, I did not sleep.”
Abdeslam, now with a full beard and longer hair than in pictures released before his March 18, 2016 arrest, refused to answer questions beyond a few formalities and stared straight ahead for much of the hearing.
“Muslims are judged and treated without pity. There is no presumption of innocence,” he said. “I’m not afraid of you. I’m not afraid of your allies. I place my faith in Allah.”
He is being tried alongside a second defendant, Sofiane Ayari. The judge’s questions Monday were oriented toward establishing which of the two also fired on officers during the shootout.
Federal prosecutors in Belgium are seeking 20-year prison sentences for both men, formally citing a terrorist link in the shootout.
Abdeslam has previously refused to speak to investigators in France about the attack there that killed 130 on Nov. 13, 2015. In the aftermath, Abdeslam slipped through a police dragnet and for four months stayed in a series of hideouts with Ayari and other jihadis. By then, his photo along with the dire warning “armed and dangerous” was plastered throughout Europe.
Ayari, a Tunisian who fought with IS for a year before heading to Europe, repeatedly refused to name accomplices, nor would he explain why he had traveled with others from the group to Belgium, where a fake ID with his photo awaited his arrival. By the time Abdeslam and Ayari moved into the upstairs apartment, police had raided more than a dozen locations in Belgium with little to show for it.
On the afternoon of March 15, 2016, they battered down yet another door. This time, it was to the staccato of an assault rifle. An IS fighter opened fire on the officers, who had only service weapons, while Abdeslam and Ayari darted onto a rooftop, broke into a neighboring apartment and escaped, authorities said.
The fugitives left behind a Kalashnikov, ammunition clips, a cellphone and a tunic — their DNA was everywhere, according to court testimony. Three officers were wounded.
Three days later, Abdeslam and Ayari were caught in Molenbeek at the home of Abdeslam’s cousin. That was the last time most of France and Belgium would see Abdeslam, long-distance television shots showing him limping from a gunshot wound to the foot as he was led to a waiting police car.
Four days after his capture, extremists struck in Brussels. The same bomb-maker who had built the explosives in Paris packed even more deadly material into suicide bombs at the airport and metro. Thirty-two people died along with the three bombers.
In all, the sprawling network killed 162 people in Paris and Brussels, cities that were home to most of the attackers. Family members of victims and survivors of the attacks had hoped this week’s trial would clarify the ties between the attacks and their planning.
“This trial is one of the pieces of a global puzzle which will answer some of our questions,” said Guile Denoix de Saint Marc, a member of V-Europe, a victims’ association. “But at the same time, we expect to be very disappointed and to learn nothing.”
Ayari took pains to avoid saying anything that would clarify the plot, implicate Abdeslam or criticize IS, which was at the height of its recruitment drive at the time of the attacks. The extremists have since lost control of their strongholds in Iraq and Syria, but the pull of their propaganda continued to inspire Europeans to kill at home and abroad.
He said he spent his five months in Belgium doing “nothing in particular” and had wanted only to return to Syria.
“Why did all these people put up with you if you were so useless?” asked the exasperated presiding judge, Marie-France Keutgen. “That has no logic.”
Abdeslam was even less cooperative. Keutgen said she didn’t understand why he came to the court if he had nothing to say.
“My silence makes me neither guilty nor a criminal,” he answered. “Now go ahead and judge me.”
Lorne Cook in Brussels, and Sam Petrequin in Paris, contributed to this report.