Belgian lawyer Isa Gultaslar, who is defending Sofien Ayari, attends the second day of the trial of Salah Abdeslam and Soufiane Ayari at the Brussels Justice Palace in Brussels on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. (Francois Lenoir, Pool Photo via AP)

Key Islamic State suspect absent as Belgian trial resumes

February 08, 2018 - 7:37 am

BRUSSELS (AP) — A former Islamic State fighter who escaped under police gunfire with Europe's most-wanted fugitive didn't want to die as a martyr, or cause carnage, his lawyer argued Thursday in a courtroom marked by the absence of the second defendant — the sole living suspect in the 2015 attacks on Paris.

Sofiane Ayari was in court in Brussels Thursday, but his high-profile co-defendant Salah Abdeslam had informed the tribunal in Brussels that he did not want to come to Thursday's hearing — the first since he was initially brought before the court on Monday.

The two face charges of attempted murder in a terrorist context for a March 15, 2016, shootout with police in the Belgian capital. Abdeslam, who at the time was Europe's most-wanted fugitive, escaped out of a window with Ayari. A third Islamic State suspect died.

The pair were captured a few days later. On March 22, 2016, Islamic State suicide bombers struck the Brussels metro and airport.

A total of 162 people died in the attack in November 2015 in Paris and the subsequent bombings in Brussels.

Prosecutors have asked for the maximum 20-year prison term.

Hopes had been high that Abdeslam, who has refused to speak to an investigating judge in France, would shed light on the sprawling network of Islamic State supporters who carried out the pair of attacks. Authorities say he himself was armed with a suicide belt that malfunctioned the night of Nov. 13, 2015. He fled Paris with the help of friends and spent four months on the run — with Ayari and others.

But on Monday — Abdeslam's first public appearance since his capture — he refused to testify, telling the judge that his silence would be his defense.

Ayari has said little, but denied that he had fired the Kalashnikov the pair escaped with. Instead, his lawyer Isa Gultaslar indicated Thursday that the Islamic State fighter who was killed in the shootout had been the only man firing on the officers in the police raid, despite the usual stated wish of IS combatants to die as "martyrs."

"One thing is clear, Mr. Ayari did not wish to die or cause even worse carnage," Gultaslar said, according to Belgian public broadcaster RTBF. "

A lawyer for the police, Valerie Lefevre, said Ayari and Abdeslam both were members of the group that attacked Paris and Brussels. "The objective is clear: to intimidate the population and destabilize our country."

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