(CN) — The only survivor of an Islamic State group that killed 130 people in Paris said on Wednesday the coordinated attacks were to avenge women and children being bombed by French airplanes in Syria.
This was the first time the judges allowed Salah Abdeslam to speak at a trial where he and 19 other men face sentences that range from 20 years to life in prison for their involvement in the attacks.
“We fought France, we attacked France, we targeted the civilian population. It was nothing personal against them,” Abdeslam said, according to news reports. “We came to kill French civilians so that you would suffer as the men, women and children killed by French bombs in Syria were suffering.”
“I know my statement may be shocking, but it is not to dig the knife deeper in the wound but to be sincere towards those who are suffering immeasurable grief,” he said, according to a translation by the Associated Press.
Inside the Paris courthouse, news reports said family members of people killed and wounded in the attacks wept and hugged each other as Abdeslam spoke. The criminal trial, the largest in modern French history, started a week ago.
Abdeslam, a Belgian-born French-Moroccan who turned 32 on Wednesday, was captured months after the November 2015 attacks in a Brussels neighborhood where he grew up.
“[Then-French President] Francois Hollande knew the risks he was taking in attacking the Islamic State in Syria,” he said.
Under Hollande's presidency, France joined an international coalition that fought the Islamic State as it took possession of large areas of Iraq and Syria. Hollande is due to testify during the trial. He has spoken frequently about how the attacks and Islamist terrorism defined his presidency.
“We acted with respect to authentic Islam,” Abdeslam said Wednesday, according to RFI, a French news outlet.
This wasn't the first time Abdeslam spoke out at the trial. But until the trial started, he refused to speak with investigators.
On the opening day of the trial, when he was asked to confirm personal details, he said “there is no God except Allah” and that he gave up his job “to become an Islamic State soldier.”
Later that day, he complained that he and the other defendants were treated “like dogs” in prison. The presiding judge, Jean-Louis Peries, tried to interrupt him from talking.
“We should be treated like human beings. We are not dogs,” Abdeslam said, according to The Guardian, a British newspaper.
“Here it’s lovely, there are flat screens, air conditioning, but over there [in prison] we are mistreated, we are like dogs,” he continued.
The newspaper reported that a voice in the back of the court uttered angrily in response: “And us, we suffered 130 deaths, you bastard.”
The 2015 attacks was the worst atrocity in France since the end of World War II and it shook the nation similar to what happened in the United States on the Sept. 11, 2001.
On Nov. 13, a Friday night, 10 jihadists killed 130 people and wounded nearly 500 others in attacks at the Bataclan concert hall, France's national soccer stadium, the Stade de France, and at cafes and restaurants. Investigators believe the attack was ordered by the Islamic State's high commanders in Raqqa, Syria.
The attackers detonated explosive vests, opened fired at busy restaurants and cafes and killed 90 people attending a rock concert by the Eagles of Death Metal, an American band, inside the Bataclan theater.
Abdeslam was the only survivor of the 10-member cell that attacked Paris. The other nine attackers were slain in police shootouts or killed themselves after detonating explosive vests. Salah Abdeslam's brother, Brahim, blew himself up on the terrace of the Comptoir Voltaire bar.
The others on trial are accused of helping coordinate the highly orchestrated attacks by renting places to hide weapons and explosives, rounding up cash, renting cars for the assailants, transporting attackers across borders and obtaining fake documents.
The accused, many of them Belgian-Moroccans, are mostly in their 20s and 30s and face a variety of charges, including complicity with murder, hostage-taking and organizing a terrorist conspiracy.
Their cases will be decided by a panel of judges and the criminal proceedings are expected to last at least nine months until late May, a record length. About 300 witnesses are expected to testify.
Nearly 1,800 civil plaintiffs – mostly survivors and relatives of those killed – represented by about 300 lawyers are bringing suit too and the court will hear testimony from many of them. Under some European legal systems, civil cases can he heard in conjunction with criminal proceedings.
Weeks of testimony from survivors, witnesses and victims' relatives will vividly bring back to life the horrors of that Friday night in Paris.
Abdeslam initially told investigators that he didn't detonate his suicide vest because he no longer believed in the mission. However, it is believed he fled to Belgium with the help of two others because the vest malfunctioned.
In 2018, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting at police officers shortly before he was arrested on March 18, 2016.
In this trial, 11 suspects, including Abdeslam, are being placed under tight security inside a glass booth. Three others who are not in custody but under judicial control are seated in front of the glass booth.
Six other men are being tried in absentia. It is believed four or five of these men – including Oussama Atar, a Belgian-Moroccan believed to be the mastermind behind the attacks – were killed in Western attacks against Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq.
One man, Ahmed Dahmani, is serving a 10-year sentence in Turkey, which refused to allow his transfer to Paris to stand trial.
A cell of Islamic State jihadists based in Brussels is accused of being behind the attacks. Investigators accuse the same network of attacks in Brussels later in March 2016 that killed 32 people.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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