Lisa O'Carroll, The Guardian, July 25, 2023
Six men have been found guilty of murder and attempted murder for their part in the 2016 Brussels terrorist attacks that killed 32 people and injured more than 300.
They include Salah Abdeslam, who is already serving a life sentence in France for his role in the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks which targeted the Bataclan theatre and France’s national stadium, killing 130 people and injuring 350. He was arrested four days before the Brussels attack.
French authorities allowed Abdeslam, along with four others, to be transported to Belgium so they could face justice over the country’s biggest peacetime attack.
Two other defendants were acquitted of murder but found guilty of participating in a terrorist group. Two others were acquitted of the charges they faced.
In her closing remarks, Laurence Massart, the president of the Brussels court of assizes, recalled the devastation caused by the bombers, part of a Belgo-French cell of the Islamic State terrorist group, during the morning rush hour on 22 March 2016 at Brussels airport, in Zaventem, and in a metro station by the headquarters of the EU. The bombings put the country on edge and injured hundreds of people from almost a dozen countries.
The judge described how two blasts had torn through the check-in area at the airport, killing 15 people, injuring hundreds of others and causing “untold chaos”. A third unexploded bomb was found on a trolley a few hours later.
Massart told how the explosions had ripped through the ceiling and torn apart suitcases, leaving an immediate aftermath of dust and an acrid smell.
“The silence was broken by the cries for help, a contrast with the total joy of a few moments before,” she said.
At Maelbeek metro station a second cell of suicide bombers turned the underground stop into an “underground hell” that victims had said they “would never forget”.
The verdicts were delivered to a packed court built especially for the trial in the former Nato headquarters on the outskirts of Brussels.
Security was tight as the seven defendants who appeared in court were walked by the arm, one by one, into the defendants’ box, by armed officers wearing balaclavas and bright pink armbands. One of the defendants was thought to have been killed in a drone attack in Syria but was tried, and found guilty, in absentia.
Also convicted was Mohamed Abrini, a childhood friend of Abdeslam and a Brussels native who walked away from the airport after his explosives failed to detonate. Identified as the “man in the hat”, he was one of three suspects caught on camera in the airport.
The verdicts close a chapter in the biggest trial in Belgium’s judicial history, with more than 900 civil plaintiffs taking part in the hearings that began in December.
Eight of 10 defendants were charged with 32 counts of terrorist murder, attempted terrorist murder of 695 people, and participation in the activities of a terrorist group.
An extraordinary session of the court was opened after 6.30pm to accommodate delivery of the jurors’ answers, which were expected to take at least five hours to deliver.
About a dozen family members of victims, most of whom stayed away from the trial, were in attendance.
The defendants will be sentenced at a later date, probably in September.
Five of the defendants are already behind bars, having previously been sentenced in Paris in relation to the earlier terrorist attacks in the French capital.