The main surviving suspect on trial over the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris took the stand for the first time on Wednesday, telling a court that he had never killed or wounded anyone.
Salah Abdeslam is suspected of being a member of a group of jihadists who carried out a coordinated series of bombings and shootings across the French capital that left 130 people dead and hundreds of others injured.
Called to give evidence for the first time in the nine-month trial, he said: “I did not kill anyone and I did not injure anyone. I didn’t inflict so much as a scratch on anyone. It’s important for me to say this.”
The 32-year-old is suspected of planning to blow himself up in a suicide attack in Paris’s northern 18th arrondissement but backing out at the last minute. Police found an explosive vest they believe to have been his in a rubbish bin.
Abdeslam told the court he decided to support Islamic State after western states carried out bombing raids in Syria. He said he had been brought up a Muslim in the religious sense but had not been aware of political or military associations with the religion until then.
He said his brother and his best friend, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian-Moroccan believed to have been the “operational chief” of the attacks, had gone to Syria to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but the bombings “changed everything” and prompted Islamic State to consider European targets.
The lead judge, Jean-Louis Périès, asked him whether, given how many people died in the Paris attacks, it had been “reasonable” for him to think the attacks would change French politics.
“Perhaps it would not make a difference,” Abdeslam replied, suggesting that the attacks were a tit-for-tat response to the killing of civilians in Syria. “What I find serious is when Mr François Hollande came here and said that if he had to go back he would do the same thing, which didn’t shock anyone here except me … I say, it’s because of him we are here today.”
The judge responded: “We’re not here to judge France or the French parliament.”
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks on 13 November 2015, which began at about 9pm with the detonation of a suicide bomb at the Stade de France stadium and continued with a number of drive-by shootings and bombings at busy cafes and restaurants in the capital, and a massacre at the Bataclan concert hall.
Apart from a number of outbursts at the opening of the trial last September, Abdeslam has remained silent since his arrest. On Wednesday he engaged in a verbal sparring match with Périès, telling him at one point: “Let’s take a deep breath.”
Abdeslam said his support for sharia law included the idea that non-Muslims could be either freed, killed or held in slavery. “Yes, we can do this in the Qur’an,” he said. When the judge expressed astonishment and said this was not other Muslims’ view of Islam, he responded: “That is their vision of Islam. We can live our religion as we want. We are not going to change our religion to please others.”
Abdeslam, a Brussels-born French national, is accused of being key to the international logistics operation bringing jihadists back to Europe from Syria, where they had been fighting.
He was arrested in March 2016, after a four-month manhunt, in a shootout with Belgian police in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean. Days after he was taken into custody, suicide bombers suspected of being part of the same terrorist cell struck at Brussels airport and the city’s Metro system, killing 32 and injuring hundreds.
The marathon legal process is the biggest ever criminal trial in France. Fourteen suspects are in the dock and another six people are being tried in their absence, five of them presumed dead in Iraq or Syria; the last is in prison in Turkey.
Hundreds of police and gendarmes surrounded the Palais de Justice in central Paris where a special temporary courtroom has been constructed for the trial.