The main defendant in the November 2015 Paris attacks trial has sought to justify the murder of 130 people as retaliation for French military action against Islamic State (IS) jihadists.
Salah Abdeslam, 32, is the only surviving member of the IS cell that targeted Paris that night, according to prosecutors.
“We attacked France, targeted its people, civilians, but there was nothing personal,” he testified in court.
In court, his remarks shocked and upset survivors and victims’ families.
He disrupted the trial with two outbursts last week, but this time the judge allowed the defendants to make a brief statement, and reporters said his behaviour was more measured.
Some of the survivors of the 13 November bomb and gun attacks will begin giving evidence later this month, which is expected to take five weeks.
Despite the fact that there are 20 defendants on trial, Salah Abdeslam is the main suspect, and only 13 others are present in court. The majority of the others are presumed to be dead.
He singled out former President François Hollande, claiming that when he authorised air strikes on IS militants in Syria, he knew French citizens would be killed.
He claimed that French warplanes had made no distinction between men, women, and children, and that “we wanted France to go through the same pain.” While he was aware that his words might offend “sensitive souls,” he stated that his goal was to be truthful and not lie.
‘The disgrace of it’
In the courtroom, relatives and survivors cried and hugged as the main defendant spoke for four to five minutes. He told the court that theirs was a “authentic Islam,” rejecting the terms “terrorists” and “radicalism.”
Reporters described gasps of breath and shock in the courtroom. David, a survivor of the Paris attacks, was among those who heard him.
“I get the impression he’s managed to distance himself from what he did six years ago – wearing an explosive belt and killing people,” David told BFMTV.
“It’s strange because we went through this as victims. We were singled out and personally harmed, and then he comes out and says openly, “It wasn’t your fault, but you were there, so tough luck.” It’s a disgrace. It simply demonstrates a disregard for what all of the victims went through.”
The heavily armed 10-man jihadist squad first attacked the Stade de France stadium, then cafe-terraces and restaurants in the central 10th and 11th arrondissements before storming the Bataclan concert hall.
Nine of the attackers were either killed by gunfire or blew themselves up. Salah Abdeslam fled to Belgium after discarding his bomb belt. He was apprehended months later after a shootout in Brussels’ Molenbeek neighbourhood.
The trial involves eighteen hundred civil plaintiffs.
Many of the other defendants also have a Belgian connection:
- Mohamed Abrini, who was arrested on the day of the March 2015 Brussels bombings, admitted his involvement in the Paris attacks, when he addressed the court on Wednesday. However, he said he wasn’t the brains behind the operation
- Mohamed Amri admitted taking Salah Abdeslam by car from Paris to Belgium after the attacks but denied any link to terrorism
- Hamza Attou, also accused of driving the main suspect away, said the same
- Yassine Atar, accused of holding the keys to the chief suspect’s Brussels safe house, condemned the attacks and insisted he was innocent.