April Verdict in Belgian Trial of Paris Attacks Suspect

W460

A Belgian court will hand down its judgment by the end of April in the trial of Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam, who is accused of trying to kill police officers in a bloody Brussels shootout, officials said Thursday.

Prosecutors have recommended a maximum of 20 years in prison for Abdeslam, 28, and Soufiane Ayari, his 24-year-old co-defendant in the gun battle nearly two years ago that led to their capture in the Belgian capital.

"At the latest, we will have a decision on 29 April," the court's administrative head Luc Hennart told reporters after Thursday's non-jury hearing.

The next hearing is scheduled for March 29, which will give the judges one month to make a decision, though it will likely come earlier, Hennart added.

The pair are being tried on terrorist-related charges of attempted murder and possession of banned weapons over the shootout on March 15, 2016 in which three police officers were wounded.

Abdeslam refused to come to court in Brussels on Thursday, after accusing judges on the first day of the trial on Monday of being anti-Muslim and proclaiming he would only put his "trust in Allah."

In Abdeslam's absence, lawyer Sven Mary sought the case's dismissal over a technicality in how the judges were named to investigate the gun battle.

"It's a very Belgian story," said Mary, explaining that the top counter-terror judge should have issued the document naming the judges in Dutch, and not in French, because he serves in a Dutch-speaking court in Brussels.

The "whole case" against Abdeslam and Ayari "must be thrown out," Mary said.

Belgium's deep divisions between Dutch and French-speakers were often cited as a factor in the country's widely criticized investigations into the cell behind attacks in 2015 in Paris and 2016 in Brussels.

Mary also said the case has been "polluted" by media leaks in France and Belgium that deny his client a fair trial, and that there was "no element that would allow you to convict Abdeslam of a terrorist offense."

- 'Mock the rule of law' -

Abdeslam was brought to Brussels from a jail near Paris under heavy security for the trial on Monday. He had been transferred to France shortly after his arrest in March 2016.

Ayari appeared alone in the court on Thursday, listening intently to his Arabic-speaking interpreter but often frowning, surrounded by elite police in balaclavas.

Ayari said he would not attend the 29 March hearing, which representatives of victims of the Paris and Brussels attacks say they want to look into links between those events and the gun battle.

Lawyers for police wounded in the gun battle accused Abdeslam, a Belgian-born Frenchman of Moroccan descent, of scorning the trial.

"He will mock our rule of law, he will mock everybody. He will not recognize your court, he will not recognize your laws," Tom Bauwens, who represented two of the police officers, told the court Thursday. 

"But he will nevertheless ask for a lawyer to plead his case before you." 

One of the three police officers injured in the battle, described only as agent nine, is still suffering from "brain lesions," Bauwens said. 

"He has epileptic fits. He has loss of vision and balance," he added. "Agent number nine did his work and all he asks for is for you the court to continue the work he started."

- Silence 'not criminal' -

Abdeslam, the last surviving suspect from the Islamic State group cell behind the November 2015 Paris gun and suicide bomb attacks, had said on Monday that his decision to refuse to answer questions was his method of defense, and that "silence does not make me a criminal."

Mary initially represented Abdeslam after his arrest in Brussels, which happened three days after the gun battle, but then dropped the former bar owner because of his attitude.

However Mary then took Abdeslam back on as a client ahead of the trial and managed to delay the hearings from December last year to have more time to prepare.

Prosecutors have said that DNA links Abdeslam to the apartment in the Forest district of Brussels where the shooting took place, but not to the weapons themselves that were used.

The Belgian trial is a prelude to a bigger one that Abdeslam will face in France at a later date over the November 13, 2015, Paris attacks claimed by IS, in which 130 people were killed.

Abdeslam's brother Brahim was one of the suicide bombers.

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