It would be fair to say that there was a collective sigh of relief across Europe when terror suspect Salah Abdeslam was shot and arrested in a police raid in the Molenbeek area of Brussels on Friday after a four-month international search. The end of Europe’s biggest manhunt came to an end with a simple tweet from a senior Belgium official: “We got him.” This was followed by a joint press conference between French President François Hollande and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, who confirmed the arrest of the main suspect in last year’s Paris terror attacks.
As far as I can ascertain, it was good old-fashioned police work and a meticulous slog by anti-terrorism officers that finally led them to Europe’s “Most Wanted Man” and two of his accomplices. No one appears to have been tortured or subjected to waterboarding in the information-gathering process and, by all accounts, Abdeslam is singing like a canary to his captors.
With a trial in the offing, it looks like Parisians will finally see some justice. Maybe, just maybe, this will bring some degree of closure for the many who lost loved ones in the shooting spree which brought terror and chaos to the streets of the French capital and surrounding regions.
This is something that US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron may like to consider before they bypass due process and trial by jury by sanctioning the next drone strike in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq or anywhere else to take out so-called militants. All too often we hear that innocent people, usually including women and children, die or suffer horrific injuries during these extra-judicial attacks which can never and should never replace a proper legal process.
A trial is essential in such situations, as much for the survivors and families of the victims of atrocities as it is for the general public; we all need closure. We also all need to know “why”.
Thanks to so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as water-boarding and other quasi-official cruelty against those suspected of responsibility for the 9/11 attacks there can never be conventional trials with a judge and jury because information was extracted by inflicting pain. Torture is illegal, no matter what some of the Republican US presidential candidates may claim, and information gained therefrom cannot be used as evidence.
The truth is that few of those accused of masterminding and/or plotting the terror strike who are in US custody can ever stand trial in a civilian court. As a result, thousands of American citizens who are still suffering from the psychological scars of that horrific day in 2001 will never get the sort of closure that a public trial can give. In contrast, the arrest of a terror suspect like Abdeslam means that there is every chance that invaluable intelligence will be gained from him and his associates by the police; that will be far more helpful than any speculation or media hot air spouted by so-called terrorism experts.
Now it is important to get the suspect into the dock as soon as possible and get the trial underway. Abdeslam has already been charged formally with “participation in terrorist murder” and in the activities of a terrorist organisation, but he and his lawyers must not be allowed to turn his case into anything other than a fair and open trial. I am still impressed by the way that the judiciary in Norway refused to let the monster Anders Behring Breivik hijack the legal system and turn the court into a theatre similar to the infamous O. J. Simpson murder trial in America. We can learn from that.
Breivik’s case went ahead with a minimum of fanfare or security; in the eyes of the Norwegian authorities he was a common criminal and was treated as such. This deflated the self-importance of the far-right egotist who clearly wanted a more high profile, high security trial with a heavily armed police presence and military helicopters whirring above the court house. It didn’t happen.
While Norway’s national broadcaster, NRK, had the contract to televise the trial, key sections of the proceedings, including statements by the mass killer, were not broadcast. Opening and closing remarks by the prosecution and defence lawyers at the Oslo District Court were shown, however.
Mass killers and their ideological supporters crave the oxygen of publicity in the aftermath of an atrocity but the way in which the Norwegian authorities treated Breivik, 33, was calm and dignified; it ensured fewer lurid headlines and less hysteria.
The murderer admitted killing 77 people, including children, and wounding more than 240 others when he bombed central Oslo and then opened fire at a summer camp on Utøya Island in July 2011. Just over a year later he was jailed for 21 years.
Judging from Breivik’s writings, his hatred of the Norwegian Labour Party’s immigration policies and tolerance of Muslims prompted the atrocity. For years, the far-right has singled out Norway because of its generally pro-Palestinian position. While there is no clear evidence that Breivik’s support for the far-right in Israel was his prime motivation, back in November 2010 Tel Aviv added its voice to those accusing the Norwegian government of “anti-Israel incitement” when Oslo funded a trip to New York for students to watch the “Gaza Monologues” play.
It is also worth noting that Norway’s Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Stor, went to the Labour Youth camp on Utøya where he was met with demands to support the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and Palestine’s bid for statehood. “The Palestinians must have their own state, the occupation must end, the wall must be demolished and it must happen now,” Stor announced to cheers from the audience. The next day, Breivik arrived with his own deadly response.
It is interesting that at the time of his killing spree the Wall Street Journal rushed to blame Muslim terrorists, while simultaneously attacking the Norwegian government for withdrawing its soldiers from Afghanistan and Oslo’s demand that Israel should end its siege of Gaza. This sort of knee-jerk reaction from the media must not be allowed to happen in the Abdeslam case. It is vital for everyone to stay calm and dignified as the authorities search for the truth.
In these early days, Abdeslam appears to be co-operating with the authorities and has already told Belgian investigators that he abandoned his original plans to blow himself up at the Stade de France on the night of 13 November after he drove the other attackers to Paris for their grisly assault. In all, 130 people were killed at several venues around the French capital.
There are suggestions that Abdeslam will fight extradition to France, a legal challenge that could delay a trial. Indeed, lawyer Sven Mary confirmed over the weekend that his client has been formally charged in connection with the Paris attacks and is “collaborating” with Belgian investigators but would challenge his extradition to France. “France has demanded his extradition,” he said. “I can tell you that we will refuse extradition to France. We will first see whether the European arrest warrant is legal.” Experts say that the extradition refusal is bound to fail because, with a European arrest warrant in place, anyone who commits a serious offence in the EU can be sent to face justice in the country where the crime took place.
Closure has thus far been denied to Parisians but it is vital that due legal process is followed to ensure that it is delivered in a climate free from media hype and hysteria, and without demonstrations from the far-right and opportunistic politicians wanting to cash in on the publicity. France will soon have an opportunity to show terror groups like Daesh that it will not be cowed, while giving its allies in America, Britain and elsewhere a lesson in how to deal with terror suspects and delivering justice that the people of Paris need to see.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.