Austrian arrests, Belgian blunders and missing detainees


The Paris exceptional criminal court, where 20 men are on trial for their alleged participation in the terrorist attacks of November 2015 in the French capital, heard this week from an Austrian police officer in person and Belgian police officers via video link. There was also a sudden drop in the population of the cell holding the accused.

It will be remembered as the week of the prisoner revolt.

On Thursday, four of the defendants refused to take their seats in court. On Friday, a fifth man joined the rebellion. As each prisoner is accompanied by two policemen at all times, the normally crowded glass security enclosure housing the suspects and their guards suddenly appeared virtually empty.

The five men informed the court that they were refusing to appear in protest against a decision allowing Belgian police investigators to testify anonymously from Brussels.

The law is clear.

Prisoners may be required to attend

In the framework of French criminal proceedings, the president of the court can either have the detainees brought before the court “using the necessary force”, or prosecute in their absence.

Thursday and Friday, the president of the tribunal Jean-Louis Périès chose the soft option and let the five rebels spend the day in their detention cells.

Given Périès’ determination to make this trial an example of a dignified debate, opposed in every way to the violence of the attacks that claimed the lives of 131 people, he was never going to call for the use of force.

The procedure also requires that those absent listen to the reading of a full report of the day’s hearing before returning to the various prisons in the Paris region where they spend the night.

From German to French to Urdu

On Tuesday, the court heard testimony from an Austrian investigator who questioned two of the defendants after their arrest in Salzburg following the massacres in Paris.

The five-hour testimony in German was translated into French for the court, then into Urdu for Muhammed Usman, one of the Salzburg detainees and originally from Pakistan. The process was laborious.

Then it was the Belgians’ turn. Ten Brussels police officers are due to testify over the next two weeks on the criminal careers and arrests of known terrorists and suspects based in Belgium before the Paris attacks.

The Belgian attorney general has refused to allow police witnesses to appear in person, saying their identities must be withheld for security reasons.

Brussels on the defensive

The problem is that there has been criticism in France, in the media and from several associations representing survivors and bereaved families, of the alleged failures of the Belgian police to investigate the key players in the killings in Paris. Brussels is clearly on the defensive.

Several lawyers present at the Paris trial this week accused Belgian witnesses of refusing to cooperate or of being incompetent to answer crucial questions. The exchanges have often been freezing, to say the least.

The Brussels testimony is supervised by two Belgian magistrates who sit with each police witness. There are fears in Paris that the evidence will be censored.

The trial continues.


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