Corporate Lawyer’s Unlikely Mission: Defend and ‘Humanize’ a Hated Terrorist

BRUSSELS — The two men sitting in the Brussels courtroom have much in common.

They are almost the same age. They are both sons of immigrants, who grew up in rough neighborhoods of Brussels. As youths, they hung out in teahouses, smoking and watching images of the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the large-scale deaths of civilians there, as well as the notorious abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.

But for all their similarities, their roles in the courtroom could hardly be more different.

Mohamed Abrini is sitting inside a glass cubicle, accused of organizing deadly terrorist attacks that shook Europe to its core. Stanislas Eskenazi is his silver-tongued lawyer, who has devoted the last six years of his life to defending his client during highly publicized trials, first in Paris, and now this one in Brussels.

“This is going to sound crazy,” said Mr. Eskenazi, 40, in an interview at his Brussels office. “But he could have been a friend.”

The assaults in Paris in November 2015 and in Brussels in March 2016 were the deadliest operations ever carried out by the Islamic State on European soil. The coordinated shootings and bombings killed 162 people and injured several hundred.

Responsibility for both attacks, whose targets included a concert hall, a soccer stadium, a rush-hour Metro stop and the Brussels airport, was claimed by an Islamic State cell that was linked to the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, where both Mr. Eskenazi and Mr. Abrini spent a big part of their lives.

While their lives’ paths had circled around each other, they did not actually cross until a half-dozen years ago. Mr. Eskenazi, a successful corporate lawyer, was volunteering with the city’s legal service. When he got a call on April 8, 2016, he thought it would be a request to defend yet another petty offender caught shoplifting.

Instead, it was the police calling about Mr. Abrini.

Known as “Belgium’s most wanted man,” he had been on the run for two weeks. Before he was identified, he had been called the “man in the hat,” seen in surveillance video accompanying two suicide bombers who detonated their explosives at Brussels Airport on March 22.

Mohamed Abrini, left, was originally known as the “man in the hat.” His image was captured by surveillance video at the Brussels airport on the day of the terrorist attack there.Credit…Belgian Federal Police, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The lawyer went to the police station and spent all night speaking with Mr. Abrini, who asked Mr. Eskenazi to represent him.

“I told him: ‘You need a heavyweight for this job,’” the lawyer recalled. “But he said: ‘I want you.’”

For Mr. Eskenazi, who is of Turkish-Jewish origins and is married to a Muslim Moroccan woman, the attacks hit close to home. When the two homemade bombs packed with nails exploded in the Brussels airport, he was supposed to be checking in with his family for a flight to New York. The trip was canceled only because his son’s appendix burst. His sister, a doctor, spent the whole night tending to victims in a Brussels hospital.

But the lawyer knew straight away he would represent Mr. Abrini, saying the more loathed an accused person is, the more interesting the case is.

As a young man, Mr. Eskenazi was “more than a rebel,” said a longtime friend and legal colleague, Jonathan De Taye. “He finds beauty in what everyone else despises.”

At the trial in Brussels, his client has no real chance at winning his freedom because Mr. Abrini has already been convicted in a French court and sentenced to life in prison over his participation in the Paris attacks.

So his mission at this trial, Mr. Eskenazi said, is to try to “humanize” his client.

“I want people to understand that the trajectory of Mohamed Abrini was not that different from other Brussels residents,” he said. “Sometimes one can get caught up in a torment.”

The trial began at the end of November after a long delay, in part over a dispute about the glass boxes designed to hold the defendants. Originally, each defendant was to be held in a small, constricted individual cube. Mr. Eskenazi, along with other defense lawyers, argued that these deprived their clients of dignity, and succeeded at having them replaced with one large glass cubicle, open at the top.

“I want them to be judged as human beings, and not as beasts,” Mr. Eskenazi said.

The 2016 attacks tore the fabric of Belgium’s multicultural society, exposing deep rifts that had been growing for years between a largely secular majority and the descendants of migrant workers, mainly Moroccan Muslims, who came to the country in the 1960s.

The Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, where Mr. Abrini grew up and where Mr. Eskenazi’s mother lives. The lawyer said he spent a lot of time there as a young man.Credit…Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

After the attacks, a far-right anti-Muslim party, Vlaams Belang, saw a surge in support.

Many in Belgium, including surviving victims and the relatives of those who died, have been hoping the trial will provide more insight about the motivations of the attackers — many of whom, like Mr. Abrini, grew up in Brussels. But they are likely to be frustrated.

To protest what the lawyers described as inhumane treatment by the police, including daily strip searches, Mr. Abrini and others said they would refuse to speak during the proceedings.

Mr. Eskenazi himself said he has no good answers. After six years of conversations with Mr. Abrini — “I have never spent that much time with anyone else, including my wife,” Mr. Eskenazi said — the lawyer said he still struggles with what drove Mr. Abrini and the six other attackers who called the predominantly Muslim, working-class neighborhood of Molenbeek home.

Partly, Mr. Eskenazi blames what he describes as the hyper-individualistic capitalist system, which he said destroyed the importance of communities. But he also accuses the Belgian state of abandoning people like Mr. Abrini, who were struggling with issues of identity and belonging.

“We forgot that people want to be a part of a society,” he said. “And the Islamic State gave its members the sense of brotherhood. For people that feel lost, that is invaluable.”

With his sometimes blunt manner, a passion for boxing and multiple tattoos peeking out from underneath his rolled up sleeves, Mr. Eskenazi stands out in the universe of corporate law. He is known for brushing off convention, once showing up to close a 22-million-euro deal in jeans, sneakers and a sport jacket.

Mr. Eskenazi at the opening of the trial.Credit…Pool photo by Stephanie Lecocq

His path to the law was not straightforward. Born to journalist parents, he dropped out of high school, then later left Belgium for Morocco, where he ran an I.T. company. After returning to Belgium, he worked as a waiter and a security guard.

The prolonged periods of financial hardship he experienced, he said, left him with a sense of sympathy — and duty — toward those on the margins.

“I know what it is like to struggle with an empty fridge,” he said. “I am not saying it is good to steal, but it is easier to be shocked by it if your fridge is always full.”

Ultimately, it was a custody battle with a former partner over his eldest daughter, 5 at the time and now 20, that spurred him to finish high school and retrain as a lawyer.

“At that moment I realized the power of the legal system over our lives,” Mr. Eskenazi said. He decided the best way to resist it was to master the system himself.

The approach Mr. Eskenazi has taken with Mr. Abrini’s defense has drawn criticism.

Philippe Vansteenkiste, head of V-Europe, an association representing terrorist victims, said it seemed as if the defense team was “trying to divert the theme of the trial, from terrorism to the incapacity of the state.”

“We don’t have to be naïve,” Mr. Vansteenkiste said. “We all want a good society that respects human rights. But some of these people were already convicted as terrorists.”

For Mr. Eskenazi, representing a terrorist never created a moral dilemma. He was defending the rights of the man, he said, not the acts he committed.

But the 10-month-long Paris trial, which finished this summer with 20 convictions, took a heavy toll on him, both financially and psychologically. Mr. Eskenazi has his own law firm, and his lucrative corporate work was essentially on hold during that time.

Asked whether he would take the case again if he had the choice, he said no.

“I am exhausted, physically and mentally,” he said. “I spent months listening to the most awful stories. When a mother came and talked about her daughter who was killed in the concert hall, I could only think of my children,” added Mr. Eskenazi, who has four children.

“And then you turn around, and your responsibility is to defend the perpetrators,” he said. “It doesn’t leave you unchanged.”

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