A convicted terrorist who was friends with the Manchester Arena bomber has denied being “behind” the attack and complained of his treatment by an ongoing public inquiry.
Abdalraouf Abdallah, 28, told a hearing that he was a “man of his word” and was not trying to “manipulate” legal processes to avoid giving evidence.
He said he felt like he was being “prosecuted”, amid questions over his relationship with Salman Abedi, and wanted to defend himself.
“I’m here for the families because as a community in Manchester we have been trying to understand what happened,” Abdallah told the inquiry.
“I’ve been treated for the past two or three years as if I’m behind it and as if I’m the one assisting it.”
It came a day after the inquiry was told that the bomber’s older brother, Ismail Abedi, had fled the UK ahead of a hearing where he was due to give evidence to the public inquiry.
A childhood friend, Ahmed Taghdi, was arrested on Monday after trying to leave the country days before his own appearance.
Abdallah was transported to the hearing in Manchester from jail and sat in the witness box observed by victims’ relatives.
His legal representatives applied to delay his evidence so they could read material including an expert report finding that Abdallah may have “groomed Salman Abedi into the violent Islamist extremist worldview”.
During a heated exchange between a barrister and the inquiry’s chair, Sir John Saunders, Abdallah interjected to say he would answer some questions.
“If you want to ask me questions go ahead,” he told the chair. “You’re talking about me as if I’m not here.”
Sir John asked him if it was his “intention to cooperate with the inquiry” after seeing the documents requested.
Abdallah replied: “If I’m treated fairly because to be honest it doesn't feel like an inquiry to me, ... it feels like I’m being prosecuted.”
He said he had only been given “bits and bobs” of evidence, including on his phone contact with Abedi, and “needs disclosure of everything” and legal advice before answering questions.
“I need time with my lawyers to be advised and then we will go ahead, of course,” Abdallah added. “I’m a man of my word so if I say something to you it means it’s true. We’re not here to manipulate anything … this is manipulation by putting me in a spot, basically accusing me.”
Sir John said Abdallah was not being prosecuted and that the inquiry wanted his assistance to “get to the truth” of how the bombing happened.
He granted the request for full questioning to be delayed, but said he would set a strict deadline for lawyers to make agreements about what evidence Abdallah is shown.
Sir John told Abdallah’s lawyers that he could not “simply be told ‘don’t answer any questions”, but could exercise his right against self-incrimination if justified.
Peter Wetherby QC, representing the families of seven victims, said there was an “air of palpable frustration”.
John Cooper QC, representing another group of bereaved families, accused Abdallah’s lawyers of wrongly treating the inquiry like a criminal trial.
He added. “The families’ position is that we must be fair to Abdallah but it should not be taken by him that this inquiry will tolerate [unnecessary delays] or be manipulated.”
Duncan Atkinson QC said the families that he represented “would endorse getting on with it as soon as we can”.
Sir John said he would set a new date for Abdallah to give evidence as soon as possible.
He added: “This inquiry is seeking to get to the truth, we believe Abdallah may be able to give helpful evidence and there is an inference that may be given that what is being done is trying to prevent me from getting to the truth by preventing Abdallah from giving evidence.”
The inquiry previously heard that Abdallah, whose parents were also Libyan refugees, lived in the same area of Manchester as Abedi, attended the same school and shared many associates.
He was paralysed while fighting against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in the Libyan civil war and was jailed in 2016 for helping Isis fighters travel to Syria.
Paul Greaney QC, counsel to the inquiry, said Abdallah has knowledge of a “high degree of potential relevance to give in relation to the radicalisation of Salman Abedi and the planning and preparation for the arena attack”.
“He was in contact with Salman Abedi, both in person and electronically , from 2014,” he added.
“Moreover, he is regarded by Dr Matthew Wilkinson, the inquiry’s instructed expert on radicalisation, as responsible for, as he puts it, grooming Salman Abedi into the violent Islamist extremist world view.”
Abedi travelled to HMP Belmarsh in London to visit Abdallah while he was being held on remand in 2015, then visited him in Liverpool’s HMP Altcourse in January 2017.
The following month, officers at the private G4S-run jail found that Abdallah had an illicit mobile phone in his cell, which showed calls to Abedi’s number.
Abdallah, who denies grooming Abedi or any involvement in the Arena attack, was released from jail in November on licence before being recalled in January.