“He didn’t take any Kalashnikovs, he didn’t shoot anyone”

"He didn't take any Kalashnikovs, he didn't shoot anyone"

On the last day of the defense in the trial for the Paris attacks, before a packed room, the lawyers of the main defendant, Salah Abdeslam, challenged in court the life sentence requested by the Prosecutor’s Office. Selected excerpts.

Will Salah Abdeslam get rid of the life sentence requested by the Prosecutor’s Office? This is what the two lawyers of the sole survivor of the November 13 attacks, Olivia Ronen and Martin Vettes, tried to claim on Friday June 24. “Our task is painful […], it can be hard to bear when one is already suffering so much. But it is essential. Even more so because Salah Abdeslam decided not to speak for six years,” says Mr. Vettes under the watchful eye of the accused, with a surgical mask on his face and a white t-shirt close to his body.

And the lawyer continues: “I hope his conviction is not already done. Will this man be able to return to society or will he be lost forever? […] Many people have come with certainties, it’s just our job to shake those certainties. The Prosecutor’s Office is making heavy accusations, very heavy, too heavy.”

“He is not a violent person”

The lawyer regrets that Salah Abdeslam has been judged “as a bloodthirsty barbarian or as a fanatic who is at odds with our values.” Because he “doesn’t fit into either of these two boxes.” “He is not a violent person.”

The defense then wonders: is he a coward, as some have argued? “He appeared almost every day at the hearings. If he had been a coward, he would have stayed in the mousetrap. Salah Abdeslam took all the testimonies of the victims, you can be sure of that. He did not always react as expected. I understand that his phrases are outrageous, [con] his disastrous words, his unexpected outbursts without a filter”.

Certainly, “Salah Abdeslam is not a good communicator. The media have fed on his words to maintain the figure of the devil. But for Mr. Vettes, as the hearings progressed, “Salah Abdeslam showed his true face. Obviously, we’re not going to give him a medal because he listened to the victims. But can we recognize that it is not pleasant to receive the words of the victims every day? One thing is certain for the defense, “the victims had their undisputed part in the evolution of Salah Abdeslam in the hearing.”

“Her tears were not at all a defense strategy”

Martin Vettes sees proof of this in “the ecumenical apology and tears towards all the testimonies of the victims”. Sitting on the box, he received these words for himself. He did not finish remembering these testimonies. His tears were not a defense strategy at all. They were neither planned nor requested.

After trying to justify the unfortunate outbursts of the accused, his lawyer dedicated himself to minimizing the importance of his participation in the organization of the self-styled Islamic State. “No, Salah Abdeslam didn’t know everything about the project, few people knew the details. It’s called compartmentalization. I know it has become pie in the sky, but it exists.”

Then, the magistrate spoke again about the radicalization of his client: “The passage through prison is not a turning point.” He also did not radicalize himself in the Béguines, a bar in Molenbeek that some would like to turn into a “terrorist centrifuge, an incubator for jihadists, and even the advanced point of the Islamic State in Europe,” the lawyer jokes.

“But then, where did he become radicalized?” the defense asks. It is in the room of his brother Brahim where “the genesis, the matrix of his radicalization” occurs, continues the defense attorney. The defense shows the scene of Salah Abdeslam entering the room of his brother while he is watching a propaganda video of the self-styled Islamic State, designed to incite young people to act. He sees how civilians are killed in Syria, at first he is silent and then he joins the Islamic State Group, thinking that he is doing good, says the lawyer. “He’s not a sociopath, he’s not a lunatic. He’s very much of his time. He’s outraged, like all young people his age,” explains Mr. Vettes, referring to the famous book ‘Indignez-vous ‘, by Stephane Hessel.

“He didn’t pick up any Kalashnikovs, he didn’t shoot anyone.”

The long silence maintained by Salah Abdeslam “did not facilitate the orientation of this case. By not talking about the dead, by taking all the crimes for himself. While he did not take any Kalashnikovs, he did not shoot anyone. Maybe he will also pay for them” , argues Martin Vettes.

“Some warn us that we must keep our distance from Salah Abdeslam. But we do not want to defend him from afar, or from above as if he were a nobody. There is already enough distance in society. The Prosecutor’s Office asks you to incapacitate him for life. Our role as lawyers is to bridge these gaps. We don’t judge animals, demons, but humans, hard as it is to hear.”

To judge and judge well, “it takes a lot of courage”, concludes Mr. Vettes. “You don’t have to judge according to the abysmal suffering of the victims (…) I ask you to make the effort to ask yourself a question: will the sentence make us better? We need to find balance after the chaos. Yes, we had a beautiful trial in a magnificent room, but all this decorum is secondary.Whatever the setting, justice is only beautiful when well done.

“I’m not asking for courage, I’m asking you to apply the law”

“You might think that’s all said and done,” continued Olivia Ronen, who was wearing ripped jeans under her black dress. But there are still a few words to add. (…) It was an overwhelming audience, complete and furious. (…) No one in this room came out unscathed. We all feel the pain.”

In her opening speech, the lawyer explained how the accused joined the ranks of the Islamic State Group late, one thing led to another. “He felt trapped? I don’t like that term,” she told me. “I don’t want to seem like a victim. Things happened little by little.”

Of course, “if your client is still in this world today, it’s obviously by choice,” says Olivia Ronen. She especially regrets that “sole survivor” can shoulder the blame for others. “What the Prosecutor’s Office is putting in place is not to punish Salah Abdeslam for what he did or failed to do, but as an exemplary measure.”

Next, he tried to avoid the incomprehensibility of his sentence by mentioning the prison conditions of the accused. “Under the pretext of security, the men were locked in 9m², without contact with anyone, without being able to say a single word. Man is a social animal, if you take away his social skills he is just an animal,” said Ronen.

Finally, addressing the court, he said “I’m not asking for courage, I’m asking you to apply the law.” Referring to the abolition of the death penalty, he ended by explaining that it has not disappeared, it has only been replaced by another punishment, life imprisonment, “a cruel punishment.”

This defense, masterfully directed by the Vittes/Ronen duo, left no one indifferent in the room. It is very good that the defense lawyers are brilliant,” said Bataclan survivor Bruno Poncet, “that shows the strength of democracy, we are not in Guantanamo.” The verdict is expected on June 29.

*Adapted from its original French version

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Written by Editor TLN

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