Why lawyers for Salah Abdeslam, last Paris bomber, have dropped the case

Salah Abdeslam is being held in solitary confinement, under round-the-clock surveillance. He refuses to speak.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters/File
Journalists surround Frank Berton, lawyer of Salah Abdeslam, outside the courthouse after the arrival of the Paris attacks suspect at the main law court in Paris in May 2016. Mr. Berton and his associate and Sven Mary are stepping down from the case.

Salah Abdeslam, the sole living suspect in the terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris last November, isn't talking.

Lawyers for the suspect, who has been held in solitary confinement since being picked up in his native Belgium and extradited to France, say their client’s silence is because of constantly running surveillance cameras that has exacerbated the mental health effects of his confinement.

"I've been convinced for months that he is isolating and radicalizing himself, he is taking his video surveillance very badly," said lawyer Frank Berton, a high-profile criminal lawyer in France, at a press conference on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press. "This is not blackmail, it's just the reality of his psychological and psychic state. The problem is related to his solitary confinement." 

Previous requests by Mr. Berton and his co-counsel Sven Mary, Mr. Abdeslam's Belgian lawyer, to remove the cameras were rejected by a judge. Both lawyers now say they are resigning from the case because of their client’s decision not to speak.

"We are convinced, and he told us so, that he will not talk and will use his right to remain silent. What can we do? I have said it from the beginning: If my client remains silent, I drop his defense," said Berton on French television, according to Reuters.

A lawyer for the families of some of the victims dismisses the idea that the cameras have anything to do with the suspect's silence.

"Salah Abdeslam is refusing to cooperate," lawyer Samia Maktouf told Reuters. "The video surveillance is just a pretext."

It may trigger painful memories for some Parisians. Mr. Abdeslam had originally said that he wanted to explain how he came to take part in the attacks, which targeted the Bataclan concert hall, the national stadium, and several cafes in the French capital. And that he was captured alive, unlike the other attackers, who died in suicide bombings or during shootouts with police, was a relief to many, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in March:

"It's great that they stopped him because usually with terrorists, they die in the attacks or blow themselves up," Parisian resident Claudia Peters told the Monitor in Republique square. "We're relieved because maybe he can give us some answers as to what happened that night."

For now, the French public will have to wait. Part of the hope was that he could lead investigators to other members of a network affiliated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State – a network that carried out an attack in Abdeslam's hometown of Brussels just days after his arrest. The killings roiled Europe's intelligence community, spurring the rolling-back of privacy safeguards and a new emphasis on inter-agency cooperation, even across national lines.

"Intelligence agencies are talking now, both because of the panic and, quite frankly, practically because lives are at stake," said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at global intelligence infirm Stratfor, in a February interview with the Monitor’s Rachel Stern. "Politically we can’t be seen dropping that same ball again."

The suspect's silence, Berton told reporters at the press conference, would do no service to the families of the victims. "He has decided not to defend himself," he said, according to the AP. "He is going to be accused of all crimes and will be responsible for all.... There will be a trial, but what for? The truth never came out of silence."

This article contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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