Six and a half years after terrorist attacks that left a legacy of death, injury and shock, Belgium is launching the biggest criminal trial in its history.
Ten people will face charges relating to the murder of 32 people in March 2016, when bombs exploded at Brussels Airport and then on a metro train that was passing through the city’s European quarter.
It was the deadliest attack on Belgium since the end of the Second World War and led to vigils, protests, border checks, parliamentary inquiries and even the partial evacuation of the nation’s nuclear power stations.
The prime suspect in the trial will be Salah Abdeslam, who has already been convicted at a trial in France for his part in terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, which killed 130 people. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, without parole.
Nine of the defendants will be present in court. A tenth, Oussama Atar, is being tried in his absence, although it is believed that he may have been killed in Syria.
Abdeslam is one of five defendants who were convicted by the French courts, but who now face further punishment on behalf of the Belgian authorities. They are all alleged to have been involved in both sets of attacks, operating on behalf of Islamic State.
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The jury will be told that a “terrorist cell” based in Brussels was actually planning to carry out a more ambitious series of coordinated attacks at the European Football Championship tournament in France, later in 2016.
However, it will be alleged, they changed their plans following the arrest of Abdeslam on 18 March after a police operation in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek.
Four days later, members of the cell attacked Brussels instead, and the murders began at the airport, it will be claimed.
CCTV footage is said to show three men pushing three trolleys through the departure terminal shortly before the explosions. The prosecution will allege that each man was carrying a bomb, but that only two of them were detonated by suicide attackers.
Image: A view of the courtroom prior to the selection of the jury at the Justitia building in Brussels
The third man, they will claim, was Mohammed Abrini, who was widely identified as “the man in the hat” in a CCTV image released by police after the attacks. The jury will be told that he has been friends with Abdeslam since childhood and that he, too, was previously convicted by the court in France.
The airport was evacuated amid scenes of chaos and fear. But just an hour and a quarter after the airport explosions, another device was detonated in the middle carriage of a train at Maelbeek metro station, not far from the headquarters of the European Commission.
As well as the 32 people who were killed by the attacks, three terrorists also died. More than 300 people were injured, 62 of them critically. Earlier this year, a young Belgian woman, who had been in the airport at the time of the attack, decided to be euthanised because of the “intolerable psychological” strain it had placed on her life.
Image: Security forces patrol the area surrounding the Maelbeek metro station in Brussels in March 2016 following a terror attack
Charles Michel, then the Belgian prime minister and now the president of the European Council, described the attack as “blind, violent and cowardly”.
The trial will be held in the former NATO headquarter building in Brussels. Millions of pounds have been spent on creating facilities capable of hosting such a high-profile trial, although its start was delayed after objections about the secure “glass box” that would house the defendants.
Victims and their families have long complained that it has taken too long for them to see justice being played out and that attention has been placed on the perpetrators and not on the victims.
Belgian authorities have claimed that the process of bringing the defendants to court has been extremely complex, both legally and logistically, and that delivering justice in such cases can take years.
Around 1,000 people were summoned as possible candidates to be either jurors or understudies. That process is now complete, and the trial will start. It is expected to stretch well into 2023, and cost around £30m. But Belgium hopes that it will eventually deliver a sense of closure and justice, after so many years of waiting.
Source : Sky News