PARIS– The sole surviving suspected member of the Islamic State attack team that terrorized Paris in 2015 pleaded leniency in his final court appearance on Monday, admitting he had “made mistakes” but declaring, “I’m not a murderer.”
Salah Abdeslam is one of the prime suspects in France’s worst peacetime attacks on November 13, 2015, which killed 130 people. He is on trial with 19 other men on suspicion of playing a crucial role in the Islamic State massacres at a Paris music hall, cafes and the National Stadium that Friday night.
Earlier this month, French prosecutors issued their closing arguments calling for Abdeslam to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. They charged him with multiple murders, an accessory to murder, membership of a terrorist organization and participation in a conspiracy to commit murder and kidnapping as a member of a terrorist organization.
A verdict in the historic trial is expected on Wednesday.
Abdeslam apologized to the victims on Monday, saying his remorse and sorrow for the 130 people killed and more than 400 wounded were heartfelt and sincere.
“Who can apologize for so much suffering?” said Abdeslam. He acknowledged making mistakes but stated, “I’m not a killer, I’m not a killer.”
Abdeslam remained silent on the events of November 13, 2015. He has had a few outbursts of extremist boasting since the opening of his trial in September, but has declined to answer most questions.
In April, his words began to flow and he issued a lengthy statement over several days, some of which contradicted earlier statements, including on his loyalty to Islamic State.
The only member of the Paris assassin not to align himself with the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate in Syria, he told the court he was a short-term addition to the group. He said he “abandoned” his mission to detonate his explosive-filled vest at a bar in north Paris on the night of November 13, as his brother and other Islamic State extremists swarmed the capital and parallels carried out attacks.
A police demolitions expert told the court that the demolition belt was faulty, but Abdeslam testified that he deactivated it.
After leaving the café, Abdeslam described desperate attempts to reach friends to ask for help, and how he took a taxi across Paris to the suburb of Montrouge. He first hid near Paris and then fled with friends to Brussels, where he was arrested four months later.
Demanding the harshest sentence under French law, prosecutors highlighted these contradictions in Abdeslam’s testimony – from pledging allegiance to ISIS early in the trial and expressing regret that the explosives did not detonate, to claiming he had his say in the bar altered and purposely deactivated explosives strapped to his body because he didn’t want to “sing and dance” killing people.
“Not everyone is a jihadist, but everyone you judge has accepted joining a terrorist group, either out of conviction, cowardice or greed,” prosecutor Nicolas Braconnay said in court earlier this month.
During her closing arguments on Monday, Abdelslam’s attorney Olivia Ronan told a jury that her client was the only one of the group of attackers who did not detonate explosives to kill others that night. He could not be convicted of murder, Ronan said.
“If a life sentence is handed down with no hope of ever finding freedom again, I’m afraid we’ve lost our sense of proportion,” Ronan said.
Surk reported from Nice, France