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Sole Surviving Suspect in Paris Attacks Stands Trial in Belgium

BRUSSELS — Salah Abdeslam, who is believed to be the only surviving member of the group that carried out a series of coordinated attacks in and around Paris more than two years ago, went on trial Monday in a case that will be closely watched to see if it sheds light on the assaults that reverberated across Europe.

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BRUSSELS — Salah Abdeslam, who is believed to be the only surviving member of the group that carried out a series of coordinated attacks in and around Paris more than two years ago, went on trial Monday in a case that will be closely watched to see if it sheds light on the assaults that reverberated across Europe.

Abdeslam, 28, and a co-defendant, Sofien Ayari, are accused of shooting at and wounding Belgian and French police officers who were searching for them in southern Brussels, four months after the attacks in Paris and St.-Denis that left 130 people dead, and days before two attacks in Brussels, one at the main airport and another on a subway train. The charges include possession of illegal weapons and attempted murder in a terrorist context.

The trial in Brussels is the first time the public will be given a sense of how prosecutors are piecing together the parts of what they say was a larger conspiracy, and Abdeslam used his first opportunity to speak at the trial to suggest that he had been prejudged by both the public and the court because he is a Muslim.

Abdeslam had refused to break his silence after his arrest, and the trial provides authorities with a first opportunity to bring someone to account for the attacks, which focused attention on the threat of European fighters for the Islamic State who filtered back to their home countries with the intent of committing acts of terrorism.

The attacks in Paris were followed by assaults in Brussels; in Nice, France; in Würzburg, Germany; in Berlin; in Stockholm; and in Barcelona, Spain — among others — for which the Islamic State claimed either responsibility or influence.

Before dawn Monday, Abdeslam, who is French, and Ayari, a Tunisian, were removed from a high-security prison at Fleury-Mérogis, just south of Paris, and transported by police convoy to Brussels. They will be shuttled to and from Belgium during the trial.

The contrast between the two men and the judges and lawyers could not have been more pronounced. While legal authorities wore formal court robes, Ayari came in something that looked like sweatpants and sweatshirt while Abdeslam had on a long untucked white shirt, which he wore over pants. His once clean-shaven, almost boyish, face, familiar to people in France and Belgium from “wanted” posters of him after the Paris area attacks, is now covered by a long beard.

Abdeslam initially maintained his intransigence as the trial began, refusing to stand or to confirm his name when asked by the court.

When the chief judge asked him why he had come if only to be silent, he said: “I was asked to come, and so I came. There is a trial, and I am the actor, and so I came.”

He went on to criticize the court, and suggested that it was being unduly influenced by public opinion.

“What I observe is that Muslims are judged, treated in the worst of ways,” he said. “They’re judged mercilessly. There is no presumption of innocence, there is nothing, we’re immediately guilty, voilà.”

Abdeslam also faces charges for his role in the attacks in France, but the trial in Brussels is centered on the final days of a four-month manhunt for him by police and security forces. During that time, he eluded arrest, going from house to house across Brussels, before nearly being cornered on March 15, 2016, when four police officers were shot and wounded.

Abdeslam is accused of being one of the gunmen in that shootout, as is Ayari, who was hiding with him. As police advanced on the apartment where they were hiding, Abdeslam and Ayari fled, leaving a third man to cover their retreat. That man was killed while Abdeslam and Ayari escaped; the defendants were captured three days later.

It is not clear how strong the evidence is that Abdeslam actually pulled a trigger. Kathleen Grosjean, a lawyer from the federal prosecutor’s office, in laying out the case Monday, said that Ayari’s DNA was found on one of the weapons. She did not, however, say whether the same was true of Abdeslam.

The government’s allegation appears to turn on the idea that there was “a common intention by Ayari and Absdeslam to use the guns in the context of terrorism.”

Grosjean also said that all three men were sleeping with guns next to their beds so that they would be “ready to act if they were found” by authorities. The trial is being held under high security at the Palais de Justice in central Brussels, one of the biggest courthouses in the world, with a dome that dominates the city’s skyline. The surrounding streets have been blocked off and news reports say that some 200 police officers have been deployed to secure the area. The trial could take weeks or even months.

The judge has questioned the two suspects, and a lawyer for the police officers who were shot made a statement. A lawyer for an advocacy group for the victims of the Brussels attacks, believed to have been precipitated by the capture of Abdeslam, will also testify.

The federal prosecutor will then lay out his case. The trial is a regular criminal trial under Belgian law, held before three judges with no jury.

The proceedings, led by the chief judge, Luc Hennard, started Monday, when hundreds of people, including lawyers, magistrates, members of the public and journalists, lined up for hours in freezing temperatures outside the courthouse to get through a single security scanner. The trial nonetheless began on time.

Another trial, to be held in France, will deal with the attack there and with Abdeslam’s alleged role, but those proceedings are not expected to start until the end of 2019 at the earliest, according to people close to the case.

The long lead time reflects the monumental work involved in gathering and sorting the evidence, which includes hours of cellphone evidence in multiple languages; the contents of at least one and perhaps more computers; the trail of how the suspects arrived in France; and efforts to pin down their network of forgers, drivers, shelterers and other accomplices.

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