, BRUSSELS, Feb 1 – The main terror suspect behind the 2015 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, goes on trial in Belgium under tight security next week over a shootout in Brussels that led to his capture.
It will be the first public glimpse of the 28-year-old who led police on a four-month international manhunt following the attacks in the French capital that killed 130 people.
Abdeslam, who is currently in jail in France, has stayed silent under interrogation since his arrest but insisted on personally attending the trial over the March 15, 2016 gun battle in the Belgian capital.
The Brussels-born French citizen and the man arrested with him, Sofian Ayari, 24, face charges of “attempting to murder several police officers in a terrorist context” and of “carrying prohibited weapons in a terrorist context”.
Abdeslam is the sole surviving suspect of the Paris attacks and is also linked to the terror cell that carried out the March 22 suicide bombings in Brussels just days after his arrest.
The Islamic State group claimed both sets of attacks that left a total of 162 people dead and hundreds more wounded.
Belgium’s federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw said he expected the trial to “yield clues” about the cell behind the two attacks.
“This is important for the victims,” he added.
– Massive security –
The trial opens early Monday amid heavy security in the Palais de Justice, an imposing 19th century Brussels landmark topped with a gilded cupola towering more than 100 metres (320 feet).
Under arrangements for the trial in Brussels, the boyish-looking former bar owner will be transferred to a prison in the north of France, from where he will travel to Brussels daily.
Abdeslam has spent nearly 20 months in isolation under 24-hour video surveillance at Fleury-Merogis prison near Paris, after being transferred to France after his arrest.
The trial was postponed in December to allow his lawyer Sven Mary to prepare the case.
Mary, who initially represented Abdeslam and then dropped him because of his attitude, took him on again as a client late last year.
Court sources said Abdeslam has refused to speak to investigators since his arrest.
Police say Abdeslam and Ayari were holed up at a flat in the Brussels district of Forest when it was raided by French and Belgian police in a joint operation, leading to a shootout.
Investigators say the pair fled via the back door but a third suspect, 33-year-old Algerian Mohamed Belkaid, was mortally wounded when he exchanged fire with police smashing through the main door, apparently providing cover for their escape.
Three officers were wounded.
– Shot in the leg –
The discovery of the three suspects was apparently a lucky break resulting from what was described as a routine search for accomplices in the Paris attacks.
Police say they found Abdeslam’s fingerprints in the flat, confirming they were on the trail of the last suspect in the rifle and bomb attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, bars, restaurants and the National Stadium in the French capital on November 13, 2015.
Abdeslam is suspected of being the driver in the attacks.
Three days after the Brussels police raid, on March 18, TV cameras captured the drama as heavily armed police officers shot Abdeslam in the leg and captured him and Ayari just yards from Abdeslam’s home in Molenbeek, a gritty Brussels immigrant neighbourhood.
Molenbeek had long been under the international spotlight as suspects involved in other jihadist attacks over the past two decades had either lived or stayed there.
The arrests marked the end of the hunt for Europe’s most wanted man, but relief soon turned to yet another shock.
Four days later, other members of his alleged cell blew themselves up at Brussels airport and on a train in a metro station next to the European Union’s headquarters, killing 32 people.
Investigators believe Abdeslam’s arrest precipitated the suicide bombings by other members of his alleged cell who feared they too would be caught.