Brussels bomber Salah Abdeslam fights to prevent return to France

Lawyers to argue transfer from Belgium would violate human rights

France temporarily transferred Salah Abdeslam to Belgium so that he could be tried for his role in the double suicide attacks that killed 35 people in Brussels in March 2016. AFP
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French terrorist Salah Abdeslam, 33, told a Belgian court on Monday that his upcoming transfer to France would violate his human rights.

“My future is in Belgium. Sending me back to France is like sending me to my death,” said Abdeslam, who grew up in Brussels.

In July last year, France temporarily transferred Abdeslam to Belgium so that he could be tried for his role in the double suicide attacks that killed 35 people in Brussels in March 2016.

A jury found him guilty of murder, attempted murder and participation in the acts of a terrorist group.

Five other men – Mohamed Abrini, Osama Krayem, Ali El Haddad Asufi, Bilal El Makhouki, and Osama Atar, who is presumed dead – were found guilty of the same crimes.

They are expected to be issued a sentence next week after an 11-month trial and risk a life sentence, which can be appealed in Belgium after 15 years in prison.

Many, including Abdeslam, had already been sentenced in June 2022 by a French court for their role in the November 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people.

Abdeslam was the only surviving cell member to be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

He did not appeal the sentence, which is the harshest in French law and has only been issued four times before.

Should his lawyers successfully block his transfer to France, Abdeslam may face a shorter prison sentence in Belgium, where the equivalent of France's life sentence without parole does not exist.

They argued that his detention in France would violate articles three, six, eight and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which include a ban on torture and the right to a fair trial.

They said that he was detained between 2016 and 2022 in France's Fleury-Merogis prison in “cruel” conditions. They included solitary confinement and constant camera surveillance, according to them.

A life sentence without parole in France can be appealed after 30 years, but Abdeslam's lawyers said that his living conditions in jail meant that he would never be allowed to meet the necessary legal requirements.

The conditions include proving that he can be reinserted into society as well as requesting the opinion of some of his victims and of three medical experts.

“In the present state of affairs, Salah Abdeslam will probably never be able to ask to be freed,” said one of his French lawyers, Olivia Ronen, who came to Brussels to support him at the hearing.

Abdeslam complained that France had become indifferent to his treatment due to a high level of media interest.

“I can't tell you the number of times I was undressed, handcuffed and rolled on the floor, or the number of times I was beaten,” he said. “They can do anything and it doesn't matter because it's Abdeslam.”

“I ask you to leave me close to my family,” he said, adding they had lived over 50 years in Belgium.

But it is not up to a Belgian court to decide whether his living conditions in France must be improved, said lawyer Bernard Renson.

Mr Renson, who represented the Belgian state, pointed out that Abdeslam has the right to file complaints in France.

He dismissed Abdeslam's lawyers' argument that he was not informed of his full legal rights before he accepted his transfer to France in 2016.

“I have the feeling that Mr Abdeslam regrets his decisions at the time, and that is his problem,” he said.

The hearing was exceptionally overseen by the chamber of referees in the same building as the Brussels bombing trial for security reasons.

The chamber is expected to issue a decision within 15 days.

The trial, the largest in Belgian history, has taken place in specially modified former Nato headquarters north of the capital.

It restarted on Monday morning after a summer break.

Public prosecutors started by explaining the technicalities of Belgian law to the jury, highlighting that Belgian law is more lenient than French law.

“Life in prison is a ceiling,” said prosecutor Paule Somers. “Sooner or later, the accused will be able to get out.”

Her colleague Bernard Michel asked the jury to sentence Atar, believed to have been killed in Syria in 2017, to life in prison.

He said that Tunisian national Sofien Ayari, who was found guilty of participation in a terrorist organisation but absolved of charges of murder and attempted murder, had already been sentenced to the maximum possible sentence of 20 years in prison in a separate trial in 2018.

Along with Abdeslam, Ayari was sentenced to two decades in prison for shooting at police shortly before their arrest on March 15, 2016.

The incident is believed to have pushed the rest of the cell to launch their attacks on Brussels three days later. They had previously been plotting a second attack in France.

Ayari was also sentenced to 30 years in prison for his role in the Paris attacks.

It remains unclear where he will serve his sentence.

Public prosecutors are expected to continue reading their indictments over the coming days.

They said that the five dual nationals involved in the trial risk losing their Belgian nationality.

Four, including Atar, Abrini, Asufi, and El Makhouki, are Belgian-Moroccan.

One, Herve Bayingana Muhirwa, holds Rwandan nationality.

“By participating in these attacks, these people wanted to exclude themselves by their own choice from our society,” said Ms Somers.

Muhirwa, who converted to Islam shortly after his younger brother's death in 2011, was found guilty of participation in a terrorist group but not of murder or attempted murder.

He faces up to 10 years in prison.

Updated: September 04, 2023, 7:10 PM