Brussels (AFP) – A Belgian court on Monday sentenced the sole surviving suspect in the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, to 20 years in prison on terror charges over a bloody gun battle with police in Brussels days before his capture in 2016.
Abdeslam’s co-defendant Sofiane Ayari received the same sentence after the pair were convicted of terrorism-related attempted murder over the shootout in which four police officers were wounded.
Judges at the court in Brussels said that “there can be no doubt about their commitment to radicalism” as they handed down the maximum jail term demanded by Belgian prosecutors at the trial in February.
Neither Abdeslam, 28, a Belgian-born French national, nor Ayari, a 24-year-old Tunisian citizen, was in court to hear the verdict.
Abdeslam is being held in jail in France pending a separate trial over the November 2015 Paris attacks, claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group, in which 130 people died.
The pair were convicted of opening fire on a team of Belgian and French police who raided a flat in the Forest area of Brussels on March 15, 2016, following a tip-off about the Paris attacks. A third jihadist was killed in the raid.
At the time Abdeslam was regarded as the most wanted man in Europe.
– ‘Allah guided me’ –
Abdeslam, a Belgian-born French national, fled the scene but was arrested three days later in the largely immigrant Molenbeek area of the Belgian capital, near his family home.
On March 22, suicide bombers from a cell linked to the Paris attacks killed 32 people and wounded hundreds more at Brussels airport and a metro station in the Belgian capital.
Abdeslam’s lawyer Sven Mary told reporters outside the court that he would consult with his client at the prison where he is being held in France “and then we will see if he wants to lodge an appeal.”
He said Abdeslam would likely have to serve the full Belgian 20-year term on top of any sentence that arises from the French trial over the Paris attacks.
The judgment said Abdeslam had written a document addressed to his mother saying that “Allah guided me and chose me among his servants to open his path. It is for that reason that I had to fight the enemies of Allah with all my strength.”
He added that his brother Brahim, who blew himself up during the Paris attacks, “did not commit suicide — he is a hero of Islam.”
Monday’s judgment said a total of 34 shots were fired during the shootout.
– Tight security –
Belgian police mounted tight security around the imposing Palace of Justice building in Brussels for the verdict.
Abdeslam has spent most of the last two years in jail in France.
He was transported to the court from France for the start of the trial in February amid tight security including a helicopter escort, while Ayari is in jail in Belgium.
On the first day of the trial, sporting long hair and a beard instead of the clean-cut look familiar from his mugshots, Abdeslam proclaimed that he would put his “trust in Allah” and accused the court of being biased against Muslims.
He then refused to attend the rest of the proceedings.
Investigators say Abdeslam’s arrest spurred the Brussels bombers to bring forward the 2016 attacks, which had originally been planned for a later date, as they feared their capture.
Prosecutors have said that DNA links Abdeslam to the apartment in the Forest district of Brussels where the shooting took place, but not to the weapons that were used.
After Abdeslam refused to return to court for the trial in February, Mary sought the case’s dismissal on a technicality over how the judges were named to investigate the gun battle, and said media leaks had denied him a fair trial.
But lawyers for police wounded in the gun battle accused Abdeslam of “mocking” the trial.
One of the injured police officers was still suffering from after-effects including brain lesions, epileptic fits and vision and balance problems.
An organisation representing victims of the Brussels attacks and their families is seeking symbolic damages of one euro.