Salah Abdeslam, 28, cut a defiant figure at the court while refusing to stand for the judge or to answer questions about the bloody gun battle in Brussels that led to his capture in 2016.
The Belgian-born French national of Moroccan descent was transferred to Brussels under police escort from a jail near Paris to answer charges of attempted terrorist murder of police officers.
“My silence does not make me a criminal, it’s my defence,” Abdeslam, who has grown long hair and a beard during nearly two years behind bars, told judges at the Palais de Justice in the Belgian capital.
“Muslims are judged and treated in the worst of ways, mercilessly. There is no presumption of innocence.”
Abdeslam has refused to speak to investigators since his arrest in Brussels three days after the March 15, 2016 gun battle.
His insistence on attending the trial had raised hopes that he might break his silence about the Paris attacks but he continued to refuse to cooperate on Monday, as well as declining to allow photographs or video images to be taken of him.
“I am not afraid of you, I am not afraid of your allies,” Abdeslam, who was guarded at all times by two Belgian police officers wearing black balaclavas, told the court. “I put my trust in Allah and that’s all.”
The hearing was adjourned until Thursday to give Abdeslam’s lawyers more time to prepare, presiding judge Marie-France Keutgen said.
Abdeslam was immediately transferred back to Vendin-Le-Vieil prison in northern France, according to his lawyer Sven Mary.
– Twenty years’ jail sought –
Prosecutors demanded a 20-year prison sentence for Abdeslam and for Sofiane Ayari, a 24-year-old Tunisian arrested with him. Both face the attempted murder charges and separate charges relating to banned weapons.
Three police officers were wounded and an Algerian fellow jihadist, Mohamed Belkaid, was killed in the gun battle.
Prosecutor Kathleen Grosjean said it was the maximum sentence for an attempt to murder police officers.
“The police officers faced a veritable war zone,” Grosjean said. “It’s a miracle there were no (police) deaths.”
Grosjean said both Abdeslam and Ayari intended to kill the police, but there were only two weapons, one with Belkaid and the other apparently in Ayari’s hands.
“My conviction is that Ayari opened fire,” she said.
Hundreds of members of Belgian security forces turned the imposing, gold-domed court building into a virtual fortress while a helicopter circled overhead on the first day of the trial.
The non-jury trial in Belgium is the prelude to a later one in France over the November 2015 Paris attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and a series of restaurants and bars, in which 130 people were killed.
Abdeslam’s brother Brahim carried out one of the suicide bombings, which were claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group.
Abdeslam’s arrest days after the shootout just minutes away from his family home in the Brussels immigrant district of Molenbeek ended four months on the run as Europe’s most wanted man.
But investigators believe it also caused members of his jihadist cell to bring forward plans for the Brussels airport and metro attacks on March 22, 2016 in which 32 people were killed.
The same cell is believed to have carried out both the Paris and Brussels attacks.
Abdeslam was extradited to France shortly afterwards but has since kept quiet, frustrating his lawyers.
– ‘Provocative statement’ –
Ayari, who is cooperating with authorities, told the judge that Ibrahim El Bakroui, one of the suicide bombers at Brussels airport, had visited the apartment where the shootout occurred.
Ayari — who entered Europe via the Greek islands during the European migration crisis in 2015 — said he had fought for IS in Syria but insisted: “I don’t think I am a radical.”
Philippe Duperron, whose son Thomas was killed in the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, told reporters at the courthouse he never expected Abdeslam to cooperate.
Duperron criticised Abdeslam’s “provocative statement” in his appeal to Allah.
The plans for transferring Abdeslam from Fleury-Merogis prison in the Parisian suburbs, and then back to a prison just across the border in northern France every night, were shrouded in secrecy.
Two separate convoys left Fleury-Merogis in the middle of the night while a third group of unmarked vehicles set off shortly afterwards.
He is to be transferred back to France at the end of every day that he attends the trial.