Salah Abdeslam, believed to be the last surviving member of the terrorist cell that mounted the deadly Paris attacks of November 2015, went on trial in a case authorities hope will clarify unanswered questions about the wave of recent violence that has rocked Europe.

He refused to rise or answer questions during his first public appearance since his arrest nearly two years ago but broke the silence he has kept since his arrest.

He told Judge Marie-France Keutgen that Muslims are "treated in the worst ways, mercilessly".

"Muslims are judged and treated without pity. There is no presumption of innocence," he said. "I'm not afraid of you. I'm not afraid of your allies. I place my faith in Allah."

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He implored the prosecution to make a case based on "forensic and tangible evidence" and not to "swagger about to satisfy public opinion".

"My silence does not make me a criminal; it's my defence," he said.

"I do not wish to respond to any questions. I was asked to come. I came," said Abdeslam, who stayed seated for the hearing, flanked by police in balaclavas. "I defend myself by keeping silent."

Asked why he was refusing to stand, Abdeslam said: "I'm tired, I did not sleep."

Abdeslam, now with a full beard and longer hair than in pictures released before his arrest, stared straight ahead for much of the hearing.

Technically, Abdeslam, 28, is standing trial in Brussels for an incident that happened four months after a coordinated series of Isis-orchestrated assaults across Paris killed 130 people.

Belgian prosecutors are trying him for his alleged role in a Brussels shooting in March 2016, when Abdeslam was still a fugitive from the Paris attacks, Europe's most wanted man.

Four police officers were injured in the Brussels shooting, which occurred during a joint Franco-Belgian investigation into the Paris attacks.

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Abdeslam's co-defendant in the trial is Sofien Ayari, 24, a Tunisian national who authorities say was with Abdeslam during the Brussels shooting. Both are charged with "attempted murders against several policeman in the terrorist context".

In this courtroom sketch, Salah Abdeslam, centre, sits between two police officers during his trial. Photo / AP
In this courtroom sketch, Salah Abdeslam, centre, sits between two police officers during his trial. Photo / AP

Abdeslam was arrested two days after that shooting, in Molenbeek, a heavily immigrant district of the Belgian capital.

Abdeslam, who grew up in Brussels, had managed to elude French and Belgian authorities for months. The lengthy manhunt came under intense public scrutiny - especially after the attacks on the Brussels metro and airport that killed 32 people on March 22, 2016, two days after Abdeslam's arrest.

Questions still remain about the extent of the relationship between the Paris and Brussels attacks and about whether Abdeslam's arrest precipitated the assault on the Belgian capital. The trial gave the public the first opportunity to learn the narrative of a complicated chain of events that prosecutors have been piecing together for more than a year.

On a general level, the trial also presents an early opportunity to prosecute an individual suspected in a spate of attacks either organised or inspired by Isis (Islamic State) in recent years. Nice, Berlin and Barcelona have all suffered similar violent incidents in the years since, although none as deadly as Paris.


Ayari told the court he had fought for Isis in Syria.

Luc Hennart, president of the Brussels tribunal, told reporters: "If he [Abdeslam] is not talking, we will continue with his silence. If he expresses himself, the tribunal will let him an occasion to explain himself".

Kathleen Grosjean, a Belgian prosecutor, pleaded for a sentence of 20 years.

Abdeslam, who was temporarily moved from a maximum-security prison outside Paris to another prison nearer the Belgian border, will also eventually face trial in France, although not until 2019 at the earliest.

Security was high at the Brussels courthouse, with armed guards and multiple checkpoints leading to the courtroom.