The main suspect on trial for the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks has refused to explain his exact role in the series of suicide bombings and shootings that left 130 people dead and many more injured.
It was supposed to be the most anticipated day in the nine-month trial as Salah Abdeslam took the stand on Wednesday to explain why he had not activated his suicide vest on 13 November 2015.
However, there were groans from victims as well as friends and family present in the Paris court, when he announced: “I am exercising my right to remain silent.”
Questioned by the lead judge, Jean-Louis Périès, Abdeslam, 32, dressed in a black polo shirt and black trousers, replied: “I insist. I don’t want to say anything today. It’s my right … I don’t have to justify myself.
Périès went through a series of questions: had the accused seen Abdelhamid Abaaoud, considered the mastermind of the attacks, when he travelled secretly to Paris? Why had he been in tears when he met his girlfriend, Yasmina, shortly before the attacks? What had been discussed and decided when the jihadi commandos met for 10 hours in Charleroi in Belgium on 12 November?
“We can draw the serious conclusion that this is when the targets were decided, the roles handed out,” Périès said. “Who was to go where, the Stade de France, the Bataclan, the terraces … what were you supposed to do, where were you supposed to go? We understand your brother Brahim had decided you would take part and that is why you were given an explosive vest and a Kalashnikov?,” Périès asked.
Abdeslam refused to answer.
Périès continued: “There are two theories: one that you backed out as you have previously suggested and the other that your material [suicide vest] was defective,” the judge said. “Why did you cross Paris from north to south with your suicide vest? Did you plan to explode it in the Métro or elsewhere like your brother did?” Abdeslam did not answer.
The judge said Abdeslam had been in the 18th arrondissement of Paris and that after the attacks Islamic State (IS) had said there had been an attack in the 18th arrondissement when there was not. “What exactly were you supposed to do on 13 November?” he asked, to no answer.
“So many questions without a response,” the judge added.
Last month, Abdeslam, 32, took the stand to be cross-examined for the first time, telling the court that he had never killed or wounded anyone and was not a danger to the public. He indicated he would explain what happened “at a later date”.
He admitted supporting IS but suggested he had backed out of detonating his explosive vest. A street cleaner found the vest among a pile of rubbish near a bin in Montrouge, south of Paris close to Abdeslam’s location on the night of 13 November. After the attacks, Abdeslam’s mobile phone was geolocated in Paris’s northern 18th arrondissement and later in Châtillon, a suburb near Montrouge.
Abdeslam is suspected of being the only surviving member of a group of jihadists who carried out a coordinated series of bombings and shootings across the French capital that left 130 people dead and hundreds of others injured.
The previous day, Mohamed Abrini, a childhood friend of Abdeslam from Molenbeek in Brussels where they had grown up, had attempted to minimise his friend’s role in the attacks. He said Abdeslam had replaced him in the commando group at the very last minute.
Abrini was later caught on video at Brussels airport, one of three jihadis pushing trolleys loaded with explosives in March the following year. While the two men exploded their bombs, he ran off beforehand.
“I’m afraid of killing people like that in the street … attacking unarmed people,” Abrini told the court.
IS claimed responsibility for the attacks on 13 November 2015, which began at about 9pm with the detonation of a suicide bomb at the Stade de France stadium and continued with a number of drive-by shootings and bombings at busy cafes and restaurants in the capital, and a massacre at the Bataclan concert hall.
The marathon legal process is the biggest ever criminal trial in France. Fourteen suspects are in the dock and another six people are being tried in their absence, five of them presumed dead in Iraq or Syria; the last is in prison in Turkey.
The trial continues.