'Salah Abdeslam was a man in need of help'

Belgian criminal lawyer Sven Mary talks about his reasons for defending suspected terrorist of the Paris attacks Salah Abdeslam and for dropping the case.

Willem Feenstra en Elsbeth Stoker
null Beeld An-Sofie kesteleyn / de Volkskrant
Beeld An-Sofie kesteleyn / de Volkskrant

8 September 2016

'He's different. Salah has changed.' Attorney Sven Mary and his French colleague Frank Berton are having lunch together in Paris. On the table in front of them lies a blank sheet of paper. They're using it to make two lists. One of reasons to keep defending terrorist Salah Abdeslam, and one of reasons to quit. They've just attended the French examining magistrate's interrogations. With their client, the man who is held partly accountable for the 130 deaths and 368 injured on the 13th of November, 2015 in Paris. The judge asked him 39 questions, and all 39 times Abdeslam answered: 'I will remain silent'. The judge even gave his atorneys the opportunity to deliberate with their client, hoping they would be able to make him change his mind. Because his attorneys feel that Abdeslam does in fact have a good story to defend himself with. After all, he did decide not to commit the attack and to throw his explosive belt in the trash.

But Abdeslam doesn't want to talk anymore. Mary gets his notes out. He summarised every conversation he had with his client. 'An evolution' is visible in the reports. 'Remaining silent was not the plan. This wasn't the defense that we had in mind'. Berton and Mary's list of reasons to quit defending Abdeslam keeps getting longer. After lunch they return to him. 'Sir, what else can we do for you?'

For almost six months the Belgian criminal lawyer represented the most hated man in Europe: Salah Abdeslam. Last month, he and his French colleague Berton stopped defending the only living suspect held responsible for the bloodbath in Paris, a year ago this weekend. In the past months de Volkskrant spent two afternoons with Mary. One before he dropped 'the case of my life'. And once after he stopped 'the trial in which I could have stolen the show. Had my moment in the sun. Been world famous. David versus Goliath.'

During the conversations in his 19th-century study in Brussels he chooses his words carefully, sometimes biting his tongue or lowering his voice to a whisper. He is due to appear before the disciplinary court in December for allegedly violating professional confidentiality, damaging the 'dignity of the profession'. He is yet to ask the Belgian Order of Attorneys for permission to give this interview, but their answer is of no importance to him. 'No one can silence me'.

And yet the 44-year-old attorney is bothered by the disciplinary case. 'Why are they targeting lawyers?' His life changed drastically after he accepted the terrorist as a client. His e-mail inbox overflowed. He received countless insults and threats.

'People called me names, even attacked me. They told me I ought to get cancer. Said the terrorists should have blown my 6- and 7-year-old daughters to bits.' He replied to all the e-mail messages, explaining why every suspect has the right to an attorney. That this is one of the pillars of the constitutional state. Because 'when in times of fear and confusion we lose sight of that fact, your rights will slip through the cracks. Suddenly you will have lost them.'

null Beeld An-Sofie Kesteleyn / de Volkskrant
Beeld An-Sofie Kesteleyn / de Volkskrant

Some of the people who e-mailed him appreciated his response, even thanked him. Others just kept calling him names.

Mary asks if he can smoke inside. Then, softly, he says: 'I don't think it was worth it'. He stares into space. 'But would I take this case again? Undoubdtedly so.'

18 March 2016

'Could you please call me? It's urgent.' Mary's old Nokia lights up. It's 16.43. Months later, he will still remember this exact time. Mary immediately calls back. 'Hello', Mohamed Abdeslam replies. 'Have you heard about my brother's arrest this afternoon?'. Not an hour before, Salah Abdeslam, after four months of running, had been arrested in the Molenbeek district in Brussels, where he grew up. While being held at gunpoint by an arrest team, he had made one last attempt to escape. Resulting in a bullet in his knee. 'Will you go and see him?', Mohamed asks. 'Okay.'

It's the second time that family members - or people posing as such- have contacted Mary. Days after the attacks in Paris he had been approached by two men of North-African descent claiming to be Salah Abdeslam's cousin. 'They made an appointment with my secretary and did not want to say what it was about. They were regular guys, no beards.'

The boys said that Abdeslam wanted to surrender. 'I was having doubts, I thought Abdeslam had long escaped. To some place far away, around ISIS territory.' And yet he continues the conversation. 'I didn't know what Abdeslam's intentions were. You don't want to walk into the police station with someone wearing an explosive belt. And I also didn't savour the prospect of driving through the city with the most wanted man in Europe.'

Although Mary was sceptical about their story, he became curious. In his mind he went through possible surrender scenario's. But there never was a third appointment. From the 21st of November, the military took over the streets of Brussels. Stores were closed, citizens were advised to stay indoors. A terrorist attack was imminent, the prime minister warned. 'I never heard from them again after that'.

And yet Mary doesn't dicount the possibility that Abdeslam will someday come to him. Specialised lawyers are few and far between in Brussels. When his girlfriend asked him shortly after the attacks whether he would take the case, he had answered: 'No thank you'. And now he has taken it after all. 'It's an intellectual challenge, a professional cherry on the cake.'

19 March 2016

Mary descends the stairs of the massive federal police building, on his way to the basement. Every step he takes in the concrete hallways of the basement, is recorded by cameras. 'Everywhere I looked, there were huge guards. Dozens of them. They were wearing bullet proof vests and balaclavas. I recognised some of their eyes.'

Usually it's not too difficult for the attorney to switch to robot mode. He's the type of criminal lawyer who unflinchingly looks at autopsy pictures while eating a meal. But today is different. 'When you walk in there, images of Bataclan flash through your mind.'

Not far from where he's standing, a door is open, surrounded by armed men. The door cannot be closed. A gurney is poking through it, with a pale young man with mussed up black hair sitting on top of it. His leg is bandaged. He's wearing ski goggles with tinted glass.

Sven Mary speaks to the media. Beeld reuters
Sven Mary speaks to the media.Beeld reuters

Earlier that morning, Abdeslam had been interrogated. He had confessed, looked at pictures of fellow suspects and told them where he had been, what he had done and with whom.

When a guard takes the goggles off of his face, the man blinks. He needs to adjust to the bright fluorescent light and he's still dopey from the anaesthetics that have been administered some hours before, when they took the police bullet out of his leg. He hasn't slept in four days. The attorney shakes his hand. 'I'm Sven Mary, your brother Mohamed sent me.'

When Mary leaves the building several hours later, he's shocked. 'Click, click, click.' He sees chaos; journalists everywhere, photographers with cameras. 'I was short of breath. I got pushed into a corner.' He wants to leave. To get away. To his car. But he can't. 'People were falling. A tram was coming, a cameraman fell onto the tracks'.

Reporters are firing questions at him in French, Dutch, English and German. He doesn't want to answer them. But he does so anyway. 'Abdeslam is cooperating with the authorities and wants to remain in Belgium. He has given statements, he wants to talk', Mary replies to the barrage of questions. It's his first mistake. 'I hate making mistakes, I abhor making mistakes'.

22 March

Smack. Suddenly, Mary feels a hand striking his cheek. He's hit hard. His cheek's still glowing, he starts to tear up. 'You're the makak's whore. You're the Muslims's whore.'

Several hours before, what the country had feared for months, had happened. An attack. At the Zaventem airport and in the subway, 35 people are killed and 340 are injured. Rumour soon has it that the attack was made sooner than planned, because three days ago, after his first visit to Abdeslam, Mary had told the media that his client was cooperating with the authorities.

A former Belgian secret service director states that Mary's statements might have been a trigger. An attorney who was in the metro that was attacked, files a complaint against Mary with the Order of Attorneys. 'That I knew about it is a complete fantasy. But they associate me with it, I'm the scapegoat. And it only takes one crazy person'.

His attacker strikes him again, right in front of the law firm on Brussels' Afrikastraat. The criminal lawyer, who practices martial arts, takes him down. And he quickly walks in.

27 April

Mary stares at an interview in the French newspaper Libération. 'Abdeslam thinks he's living in a video game and is indifferent about religion. When I asked him whether he had read the Quran, he answered that he had found a summary online.'

They're his own words, about his own client. Spoken during what he thought was a confidential conversation. 'A little rascal from Molenbeek, more a follower than a leader. He has the intellect of an empty ashtray', he had told the journalist while looking at an empty ashtray on the table.

Mary had felt the need to 'freely exchange thoughts with someone'. A lapse in judgment. He feels like there are few people left whom he can trust. He notices this on the street, and in the supermarket. 'You can feel people giving you aggressive looks all day. You can almost see their mouths foaming, the hatred in their eyes. They want to beat the hell out of you'.

Salah Abdeslam is arrested by police and bundled into a police vehicle during a raid in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, Belgium, Friday March 18, 2016. Beeld ap
Salah Abdeslam is arrested by police and bundled into a police vehicle during a raid in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, Belgium, Friday March 18, 2016.Beeld ap

His house is guarded by the police. Just like his daughters' school. As a precautionary measure, he picks them up early. So that he, being a potential target, doesn't endanger any other children. His needs as a human being are increasingly starting to clash with his role as an attorney. For example, he admitted in an interview that 'he can only defend Abdeslam because he's cooperating with the authorities'. A stupid move, he says afterwards. 'I should only speak as an attorney, not as a person.' He hadn't been able to resist the urge, deep down, to 'appease somewhat' the angry public, who didn't understand his decision to defend 'public enemy number one'.' Something inside of you drives you. You want to be considered sympathetic. But I'm the devil.'

His comments result in a warning from Brussels' head of the bar. 'I gave every reporter the head of the bar's cellular number, and told them to ask him for permission if they wanted to talk to me. He then got dozens of phone calls a day. After a while I got a note asking me to please stop giving out his mobile number. Personally, I thought that was a pretty good one'.

10 October

'You're masturbating with eight people watching you. I'm not saying Abdeslam does that every day, or that he does it at all. But I assume that any young man - Muslim, Catholic, atheist - would have that urge. Imagine being isolated, being filmed, 24 hours a day. Big brother in a cell of 12 square meters. Even when he goes to the bathroom, he's filmed from the hips up.'

Since Abdeslam was extradited to France, the circumstances have deteriorated, according to Mary. Abdeslam lives alone, isolated from other prisoners. That's for his own safety as well, the French tell Mary.' 'Abdeslam should be put on the highest scaffold on the Place de la Concorde. He should be stoned by every passerby. That's how the French feel about him'.

He understands that attitude, even though he'll never feel that way himself. 'I think what happened is horrible. But I can't empathise with either the attackers or the victims. Whatever Abdeslam did: in a constitutional state everyone should be treated humanely. But he's the ultimate prize, the only living man who can answer for the bloodbath of November 13th. The worst thing that could happen, is for him not to make it until the criminal proceedings, for him to kill himself'.

Even the conversations between the terrorist and his attorneys are watched. The interrogation room is in the same hallway as his cell. 'When I talk to him, guards cover the window with white paper. They make holes in it, so they can watch us, but can't read our lips'. The conversations are different than they were before. In the prison in Bruges, where Abdeslam was put right after his arrest, Mary saw 'a man in need of help'. 'A little boy who suddenly finds himself in the adult world and doesn't know what, who or how. Who can be trusted and who can't be? Who are you, Mary? I had to build a relationship of trust with him.'

Right after his arrest they went through the different scenarios: which defense strategy will they go for? 'My goal was always to let him speak, that was also Berton's condition to take on the case. That's the contract the three of us had.' To him, it's 'the perfect combination as an attorney and as a person'. 'To defend my client and to find an answer for the victims' loved ones.'

The helpless boy Mary met in Bruges, had disappeared in Paris. It seems as though Abdeslam has disconnected, gone inside himself. His father, mother and brother from Brussels, who regularly visit him, see it too when they talk to him from behind the thick glass. They're worried. So is Mary. 'They're not physically torturing him. It's not Guantánomo Bay. But they do punish horrors with mental torture. He's placed in such conditions that he doesn't want to speak anymore.'

Mary and Berton have fought the poor circumstances Abdeslam is forced to live under. And they've tried convincing their client to speak, despite everything. Both attempts have failed. 'Every aspect of humanity and dignity has been taken from Abdeslam. They only thing they can't take from him is his right to remain silent. Why would he want to give anything to the people who are doing this to him?'

On October 10th they decide to quit. They put aside 'the ultimate challenge'. Abdeslam puts his faith in the hands of Allah. He refuses to hire other attorneys. 'He's pigheaded, truly pigheaded.'

13 October

Sven Mary stops talking for a moment and lights his umpteenth cigarette. Above the mantle in his office is a picture of his first interview, about ten years ago. In those days he would never have dropped a case like this, the fame would have been too alluring. He's tired. 'More tired than I've ever been before.'

Now that their client refuses to speak, the legal challenge is gone. 'The explosive belt that he voluntarily took off. The accusations that he was the mastermind behind the attacks. He can and should defend himself against things like that.'

And then there's another reason they quit. A reason which it's difficult fo rthem to disclose because of their professional confidentiality. Mary thinks it might have started in Bruges. Abdeslam's cell on the High Security department was close to Mehdi Nemmouche's. He's the man who shot and killed four people at the Jewish museum in Brussels on behalf of IS in 2014. Nemmouche shouted through the walls to Abdeslam that he shouldn't talk to the police anymore. Incredibly unprofessional, Mary feels, that it's possible for terrorists to influence each other.

In the months after that Mary saw Abdeslam change. He whispers. 'I don't really want to talk about it, but this change has coincided with his decision not to be defended anymore. He erm... he has a beard now. He's become a Muslim fundamentalist. He used to be a boy from the streets wearing Nikes'.

Mary has 'deducted a number of things' from his conversations with Abdeslam. He softly taps his fingers on the table. 'People have given him the status of a hero by portraying him as the mastermind. They've created this. And he has started to believe in it. He's put in a position where the only way to truly count is by being a martyr.

The attorney says he's relieved that it's over. The police surveillance has been discontinued, the amount of threats has decreased. But what will he do if Abdeslam shows remorse and asks for help again? 'Then', Mary says, 'then we'll talk'.

Translated by: Lisa Negrijn

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