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Meet the ‘Lawyer of Villains’ Defending the Paris Attacker

If there's anyone in Belgium prepared to take on such a complicated case, it's likely Sven Mary.

Sven Mary, Belgian lawyer of Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam, talks to the media outside the building of the Federal Police in Brussels, on March 19, 2016. 
Top Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam, who was captured in a dramatic raid in Brussels, was to be questioned by Belgian police on March 19, 2016 ahead of his speedy transfer to France. Following his release from hospital where he was treated for a slight gunshot wound to the leg sustained during his arrest, Abdeslam was to be quizzed over his role in the November 13 massacre which killed 130 people and was claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group.  / AFP / Belga / Aurore Belot / Belgium OUT        (Photo credit should read AURORE BELOT/AFP/Getty Images)
Sven Mary, Belgian lawyer of Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam, talks to the media outside the building of the Federal Police in Brussels, on March 19, 2016. Top Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam, who was captured in a dramatic raid in Brussels, was to be questioned by Belgian police on March 19, 2016 ahead of his speedy transfer to France. Following his release from hospital where he was treated for a slight gunshot wound to the leg sustained during his arrest, Abdeslam was to be quizzed over his role in the November 13 massacre which killed 130 people and was claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group. / AFP / Belga / Aurore Belot / Belgium OUT (Photo credit should read AURORE BELOT/AFP/Getty Images)

Last December, amid rumors that Belgian lawyer Sven Mary was considering defending Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam, the attorney told Belgian newspaper Le Soir that what motivates him professionally is the struggle against “arbitrariness and the abuse of power.”

For that reason, “if Salah Abdeslam solicited me tomorrow, I would accept to be his lawyer,” he said then.

Three months later, that offer has caught up with Mary, nicknamed “lawyer of villains” for his work defending some of Europe’s least desirable clients. He officially accepted Abdeslam’s case over the weekend, two months after an unidentified individual close to the terrorism suspect reportedly contacted the lawyer in January to gauge his interest.

The 43-year-old has already threatened to sue French prosecutor François Molins for revealing in a weekend press conference that Abdeslam privately admitted that he, like his accomplices, was supposed to detonate himself during the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. Instead, Abdeslam admitted to backing out at the last minute, Molins said.

“I cannot let this pass,” Mary told RTBF, a Belgian state broadcaster, referencing Molins’s willingness to reveal sensitive information presumably acquired during an interrogation.

After four months on the run, Abdeslam was captured last Friday in a dramatic raid in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels. Another man, identified by Belgian officials Monday as Monir Ahmed Alaaj — who has used the alias Amine Choukri — was also arrested. The two have now been formally charged in Belgium with “terrorist murder,” and France is demanding that Abdeslam be extradited to face charges there as well, a plan Mary will fight.

“I can tell you that we will refuse the extradition to France,” he told reporters Saturday, adding that Belgium “needs to stop kneeling before France.”

“You need to first sweep up your own sidewalk before going to someone else’s,” he said.

If there’s anyone in Belgium prepared to defend a man suspected of helping to coordinate the deadly terrorist attacks that pushed France into an extended state of emergency and proved the Islamic State’s ability to reach into Europe, it’s Mary.

The onetime rising soccer star whose career was cut short by an injury has earned a reputation in Belgium for taking on some of the country’s most complicated clients, including movie star Jean-Paul Belmondo, pedophile ring operator Michel Lelièvre, and Fouad Belkacem, the spokesman for Salafi organization Sharia4Belgium. Belkacem was sentenced to 12 years in prison last year, after being found guilty of helping to send jihadi fighters to Syria.

Mary’s experience handling that case will likely be the one that helps him advocate for Abdeslam. “The Paris attacks repulsed me, and I have personal opinions on the subject of jihadism that I won’t take out of my head,” he told Belgian journalists. “But my mandate is to defend the people who ask me to defend them.”

Mary has just one request for his new 26-year-old client: Do not deny your involvement in the attacks.

“That would bore me, and I wouldn’t defend him,” he said.

Photo credit: AURORE BELOT/AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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