The opening of the long-awaited trial of 20 people accused of involvement in the 2015 wave of terrorist attacks in Paris was disrupted when the main suspect accused the French authorities of treating them “like dogs”.
In an outburst on Wednesday that angered survivors and relatives of victims, Salah Abdeslam leapt to his feet in the dock, pulled off his mask and pointed at the president of the court.
“We should be treated like human beings. We are not dogs,” he said.
As the leading judge, Jean-Louis Périès, tried to interrupt, Abdeslam, 31, continued: “Here it’s lovely, there are flat screens, air conditioning, but over there [prison] we are mistreated, we are like dogs.”
The claim was met with anger at the back of the court, where a voice responded: “And us, we suffered 130 deaths, you bastard.”
For almost six years the survivors of the terrorist attacks in Paris and relatives of the 130 killed have waited for answers from Abdeslam. And for almost six years, the man accused of being the only surviving member of the group of jihadists that carried out the killings across the French capital, has maintained a stubborn and almost total silence. In court on Wednesday, apart from his complaint of mistreatment, Abdeslam remained taciturn.
Shortly after it was declared that “the criminal hearing is open”, launching a marathon legal process that is scheduled to last nine months, the main suspect, wearing a black mask and black T-shirt, was the first of the 14 accused present in court to be addressed.
Asked his name, he took off his mask to reveal a thick beard. “Firstly, I will say there is no God except Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.”
“Yes, we’ll get to that later,” replied Périès.
The suspect gave his date of birth as 15 September 1989. Asked his address, Abdeslam said he did not have one. His parents’ names? “The name of my father and of my mother has nothing to do with this.”
Asked what was his profession, he replied: “I have given up all profession to become a soldier with Islamic State.”
Afterwards, Victor Edou, a lawyer for eight Bataclan survivors, described this statement as “very violent” towards his clients.
“Some of them are not doing too well … after hearing a statement that they took as a new, direct threat,” Edou said. “It’s going to be like that for nine months.”
Others said they were trying not to attach much importance to the comment. “I’m not afraid,” said Thierry Mallet, a Bataclan survivor.
The attacks on 13 November 2015 left 130 dead and hundreds more injured. Fourteen suspects were in the dock; six others are being tried in their absence, five of them presumed dead in Iraq or Syria and the last in prison in Turkey.
After the other accused were asked to identify themselves, and the names of the absent suspects were read out, Périès told the court: “Today we begin a historic, unusual trial. Certainly historic because it concerns events engraved in our collective memory; certainly unusual, given the number of victims, civil parties and lawyers.
“But we have to integrate the normal at once, in particular the rights of the defence. This court’s function is to address the charges against the persons sent here by listening to everyone: the civil parties, the prosecution, the defence. We have to keep all this in mind; I know I can count on you.”
Eleven of the accused were driven to the Palais de Justice from four different prisons for the trial that will hear from 300 lawyers and about 300 of the 1,750 civil parties, including survivors, victims’ relatives and those directly affected by the attacks. Périès will preside over the court with eight other professional magistrates.
The courtroom, a temporary structure built within the law courts, is the scene of the biggest ever criminal trial in France. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the series of coordinated attacks that included a suicide bomb at the Stade de France and a massacre at the Bataclan concert hall, as well as drive-by shootings and suicide bombings at cafes and restaurants.
About 1,000 police and gendarmes were reportedly deployed to maintain security and seal off the area around the Palais de Justice, on an island in the Seine, diverting vehicles, pedestrians and buses.
Abdeslam, a Brussels-born French citizen, is alleged to have been central to the international logistics operation that involved the jihadists returning to Europe from Syria. He is believed to have escorted the three bombers who blew themselves up at the Stade de France. He is suspected of planning to carry out a suicide attack in Paris’s 18th arrondissement, then backing out. Police found a suicide vest they believe he intended to use in a rubbish bin.
Days after his arrest in March 2016 after a four-month manhunt that ended in a shootout with police in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, a suburb of Brussels, suicide bombers alleged to be part of the same cell struck in Brussels at the airport and the Metro, killing 32 and injuring hundreds.
Abdeslam’s brother blew himself up at a Paris bar during the attacks. Also on trial is Mohamed Abrini, 36, Abdeslam’s childhood friend, believed to have travelled to the Paris region with the attackers, who was later captured on CCTV with the two Brussels airport bombers.