The only surviving suspected member of the jihadi group that carried out the November 2015 Paris attacks has refused to answer questions at the start of his trial in Belgium on separate terrorism charges.
Salah Abdeslam stands accused of the attempted murder of police officers after a shootout in Brussels shortly before his arrest in March 2016.
Tight security surrounded the start of the trial of the 28-year-old, who was transferred overnight from a jail near Paris and arrived in Belgium in a convoy of police vehicles.
Abdeslam has declined to to speak to investigators since his arrest in March 2016, prompting his French and Belgian lawyers to resign in frustration, saying his silence made any defence impossible. He immediately signalled his defiance on Monday by refusing to stand when asked by the judge and saying he would not cooperate.
“I do not wish to answer any questions,” Abdeslam, bearded and wearing a long-sleeved white polo shirt, said when the presiding judge, Marie-France Keutgen, asked him to confirm his identity. The judge told the court that Abdeslam has also refused to have photos or video taken of him during the four-day trial in Brussels.
Abdeslam fled Paris after the November 2015 attacks in the French capital that killed 130 people and injured hundreds more.
He was in hiding in a flat in a Brussels suburb when it was raided by police, who believed it had been used by a terrorist cell but was unoccupied at the time. After coming under fire from inside, three officers were injured and a terrorist suspect killed in a subsequent shootout. Abdeslam escaped over the rooftops, but was caught three days later.
He is awaiting trial in France on charges of murder linked to a terrorist organisation.
Abdeslam has been transferred from solitary confinement at Fleury-Merogis prison outside Paris to a high security facility at Vendin-le-Vieil in Pas-de-Calais.
He will be ferried daily to the Belgian capital for hearings that are scheduled to last all week. The courthouse and roads around it have been secured and security forces put on maximum alert.
Abdeslam is on trial with a second Islamist suspect, Sofiane Ayari, a 24-year-old Tunisian arrested with him in the Brussels district of Molenbeek. The hearing is expected to last until Friday. Both men face up to 40 years in prison if convicted.
Abdeslam, a French national, was named Europe’s most wanted man after the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, which began when a suicide bomber blew himself up after failing to get into the Stade de France stadium where the then French president, François Hollande, was among 80,000 people watching a France-Germany football match.
This was followed by drive-by shootings and suicide bombings at cafes and restaurants around the 10th and 11th arrondissements of northern Paris, and an attack at the Bataclan theatre during a rock concert where 89 people were killed.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks, described by Hollande as an act of war. Investigators believe the operation was planned in Syria and organised by a group in Brussels.
Abdeslam is also implicated in the cell that carried out the March 2016 attack on Brussels airport and the city’s metro system that killed 32 people, and the attempted attack on a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris via Brussels in August 2015 thwarted by three US tourists.
In a letter believed to have been written by Abdeslam and discovered on the hard drive of a laptop computer discarded in a bin shortly before the Brussels bombings, he writes that he had intended to die with his “brothers” in the Paris attacks, but his suicide vest failed to explode.
A vest packed with explosives was discovered in a dustbin in southern Paris. It was found to have faults in the wiring and detonator, but experts are still unsure whether it was defective or had been deliberately sabotaged.
In the letter, Abdeslam wrote: “Of course I wanted to be among the shahid [martyrs]. Allah decided otherwise … I succeeded in joining the remaining brothers because there was a fault in my [suicide] vest.”
After his arrest in Belgium, however, Abdeslam told police he had dumped the vest after changing his mind about blowing himself up.
He also wrote in the same letter that he wanted to go to Syria. “But on reflection I concluded … the best thing would be to finish the work here with the brothers. Having said that I would just like to be better equipped in future before going into action.”
Police say the letter shows Abdeslam was planning further attacks.