The trial of Paris attack suspect Salah Abdeslam has begun in Belgium after repeated delays.
Two masked policemen escorted Abdeslam into the courtroom where he stood accused of the attempted murder of policemen and possessing illegal weapons.
Abdeslam refused to answer questions but cautioned observers not to take that as a sign of his guilt. "It is my defense," he said.
The 28-year-old Belgian-born French citizen has been linked to coordinated attacks across Paris that killed 130 people in 2015, but faces charges in relation to a Brussels shootout that eventually led to his capture. Four police officers were injured in the incident.
“For these acts, he may receive a sentence of up to 40 years in prison,” Luc Hennart, president of the French-speaking Brussels Court of First Instance, told Reuters.
Abdeslam’s alleged involvement in the November 2015 attacks in the French capital will be the subject of a separate trial in France.
On the run
Abdeslam, born to Moroccan parents, became the world’s most-wanted man after surveillance cameras captured him returning from France after the bombings.
He escaped with two men in a VW Golf car, French media reported. At least one officer stopped him on the Belgian border for checks, but allowed him to drive on.
Investigators believe Abdeslam was a member of an ISIL-inspired cell, along with his brother Brahim, which plotted the shootings and bombings in Paris. Brahim was among several men who blew themselves up as the chaos unfolded.
Three of the militants struck outside the Stade de France in Saint-Denis during a football match. The rest carried out mass shootings and bombings in cafes and restaurants, culminating in an attack on the Bataclan theatre during a music show. The attackers shot concertgoers and took hostages, and were gunned down or blew themselves up during a stand-off with police.
Investigators believe Salah may have driven three of the bombers to the football stadium and was assigned a job to attack a location in the 18th district. But that never happened.
They have suggested Abdeslam’s suicide belt was faulty and did not detonate, making him the only attacker that survived.
He had been on the run for four months until police discovered him in the southern Brussels borough of Forest during a routine search. He had been hiding in the flat with two other men, but escaped with an accomplice after a shootout wounded four officers and left one suspect dead.
Abdeslam was eventually apprehended during a police raid in the Molenbeek area of Brussels on March 18, 2016.
Prosecutors also believe he is associated with three men who blew themselves up inside Brussels’ airport and Maelbeek metro station on March 22, 2016, four days after his arrest.
His trial is set to trigger high security in Brussels, where up to 100 police officers are expected to be deployed in and around the Palace of Justice. Abdeslam will be ferried to the courthouse daily from his jail cell in France.