Last Paris attacks suspect sentenced to 20 years in Belgium

Matthieu DEMEESTERE and Clement ZAMPA
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On the first day of his trial, Paris Islamist attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam proclaimed that he would only put his "trust in Allah" and accused the court in Belgium of being biased against Muslims

A Belgian court on Monday said the sole surviving suspect in the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, remained "dangerous" as it sentenced him to 20 years in prison over a gunbattle with police in Brussels that led to his capture.

Abdeslam's co-defendant Sofiane Ayari received the same sentence, the maximum demanded by Belgian prosecutors, after the pair were convicted of terrorism-related attempted murder over the bloody shootout.

Four police officers were wounded in the gun fight, which came four months after the November 2015 Paris attacks, and days before suicide bombings in Brussels as a wave of Islamic State-inspired terror swept Europe.

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 as demanded by Belgian prosecutors at the opening of the trial in February.

"The terrorist nature of the facts under question in March 2016 appears to be established," the judgment said.

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 Paris attacks, claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group, in which 130 people died.

- 'Dangerousness remains intact' -

On the first day of the trial, Abdeslam proclaimed that he would put his "trust in Allah" and accused the court of being biased against Muslims, before refusing to answer or attend any more days of the hearing.

The judges said on Monday that "Abdeslam's silence outside his statements to the hearing on February 5 allow us to fear that he has not taken the full measure of the seriousness of his behaviour, or worse, that he is staying silent for ideological reasons."

"His dangerousness remains intact."

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.

An Algerian jihadist was killed in the raid as he provided covering fire for Abdeslam -- at the time the most wanted man in Europe -- and Ayari to escape.

Abdeslam was arrested and shot in the leg in a dramatic police operation 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 Palace of Justice -- where police had mounted tight security -- that he would consult with his client at the French prison where he is being held "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.

- 'Allah guided me' -

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."

An Islamic State flag was also found at the scene, the judgment said, adding that a total of 34 shots were fired during the shootout.

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.

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 the police were closing in on them.

Lawyers for police wounded in the gun battle accused Abdeslam of "mocking" the trial with his silence.

One of the injured police officers was still suffering from after-effects including brain lesions, epileptic fits and vision and balance problems.