BRUSSELS — The mammoth trial against 10 men accused of involvement in the March 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels began Monday, almost seven years after the bombings that killed 32, wounded hundreds more and shook multicultural, multiethnic Belgian society to the core.
The bombings at the Brussels Airport and at a subway station in the center of the city took place four months after a string of terrorist attacks in Paris. Both sets of assaults were claimed by the same cell of the Islamic State group, with many of its members linked to the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek.
The attacks in France and Belgium were the deadliest operations organized by the Islamic State on European soil, leaving deep wounds and several unanswered questions. The sheer randomness of the violence instilled anxiety across Europe and stoked debate about multiculturalism, immigration and the place of Islam in largely secular European nations.
As the trial got underway Monday, the president of the court — a judge who presides over the hearing — identified all of the participants, including the defendants and the nearly 1,000 victims, witnesses and experts registered as civil parties.
One defendant refused to identify himself, and another decried what he called the “humiliating” conditions of his detention. The hearings will resume Tuesday, starting with reading of the indictment, which is more than 400 pages long.
Like the proceedings to bring justice in the Paris attacks, which concluded this year, the trial in Belgium will be the largest ever organized in the country, with more than 1,000 registered survivors, witnesses and experts. The hearings are expected to last up to eight months, taking place four days a week under tight security.
Authorities have granted free travel to victims living in Belgium to attend the proceedings, which are being held in a Ministry of Defense building that once was NATO’s headquarters in Brussels. Those living abroad can follow the hearings via internet radio.
Although the trial brings the promise of reckoning, the testimonies from the hundreds of victims, witnesses and experts, as well as from the defendants, will most likely revive painful memories and could deepen the rifts exposed by the bombings.
What happened during the attacks?
Three homemade bombs packed with nails exploded in Brussels on March 22, 2016, killing 32 people from at least eight countries and wounding 340 others.
Two bombs were detonated in the departure hall of Brussels Airport around 8 a.m.; a third bomb was later found unexploded in the same area. Shortly after 9 a.m., another bomb went off in the Brussels subway station of Maelbeek. The three suicide bombers, later identified as Najim Laachraoui, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui and Khalid el-Bakraoui, died on the spot.
The scale and randomness of the violence sent shock waves across Belgium and the world. The Islamic State bombings paralyzed the city of Brussels — the headquarters of NATO and the European Union — and prompted travel warnings and increased terrorism threat levels in cities across the globe.
Belgium declared a mourning period, and embarked on an arduous process of soul searching. After the attacks, the Belgian security services were heavily criticized for their lack of effective action against Islamist extremists, many of them homebred. There were also questions about what many described as a failed effort to help the Muslim community integrate into Belgian society.
How will the verdict be decided?
Unlike in Paris, the fate of those tried in Brussels will not be determined by a panel of judges, but by a jury composed of Brussels residents. Last week, the court selected 12 jurors and 24 potential replacements, drawn from a list of more than 700 who were summoned.
Many of those considered for duty pleaded for an exemption, sometimes in a very emotional way, citing acquaintance with the defendants or the heavy toll on their mental health.
Why has the trial been delayed?
The trial was supposed to begin in October, but it has been delayed for two months over a dispute about glass boxes for the defendants.
Judges ordered the rebuilding of the glass boxes, which were designed to hold the defendants in court and prevent them from being able to speak with one another. Defense lawyers had complained that the cubicles were in breach of human rights and deprived their clients of their dignity, with some describing them as animal cages.
The individual boxes have now been replaced by one large glass cubicle, open at the top and bottom, which will be shared by seven of the defendants. Two others, the brothers Ibrahim Farisi and Smail Farisi, who are currently not in detention, will be seated outside of it. One other defendant, Oussama Attar, is being tried in absentia. Attar was declared dead by the Islamic State in November 2017, although his death has not be confirmed.
The change will allow the defendants to communicate with one other, as well as with their representatives and others at the court.
Who are the accused?
Ten defendants of different nationalities, all of them men, are standing trial, varyingly accused of murder or attempted murder in a terrorist context or of playing a part in preparing the attacks. All of them, except Attar, will appear in court.
One of the accused is Salah Abdeslam, the only Paris attacker who is still alive. Abdeslam was arrested in Brussels a few days before the attacks in the Belgian capital. Others include Mohamed Abrini, who is accused of having fled Brussels Airport in March 2016, abandoning a suitcase of explosives without detonating it, and Osama Krayen, a Swede who is accused of planning to participate in the subway bombings.
When asked by the court Monday about his profession, Abdeslam said that he was an “electromechanical technician.” During the Paris trial, by contrast, he had said that he had abandoned all other activities to become a fighter for the Islamic State.
Six of the accused in Brussels have already been convicted by the court in Paris, including Abrini, who was handed a sentence of life in prison.
During the hearing Monday, Abrini deplored what he said were the “humiliating” conditions of his detention. In his speech, he described being strip searched and subject to “deafening satanic music,” and threatened to remain silent until the conditions improve.
“It’s been seven years that I have been subject to your vengeance,” Abrini told the court and the audience. “Things must change. Otherwise I will stay silent until the end of the trial.”
What’s at stake for the victims?
For those that suffered from the attacks, the trial is “a big unknown,” said Jamila Adda, president of Life4Brussels, an association that represents the victims. “We don’t know what to expect, and how are we going to feel afterward.”
Not all victims decided to take part in the legal proceedings, Adda said. But for those who did, the trial is an opportunity to get some answers from the defendants, to have their stories heard — and possibly to find some closure.
Sylvie Ingels, who was returning from a holiday in Thailand when the bombs exploded at the airport, said, “I hope that this trial can be a way for me to move on.”
Although she was not injured physically, Ingels has suffered from anxiety and depression ever since the attacks. She said that she had been on medication for the past six years and that she had struggled to be a mother to her four children.
“Our lives have been broken,” she said in an interview, her voice breaking as she swallowed tears. “I still have a lot of hate in me; I can’t forgive.”
Ingels decided to testify in the trial.
“I think it is important for the attackers to hear what the victims had to go through,” she said. “For us, there is no punishment that is hard enough.”
Ingels, who converted to Islam 20 years ago and whose husband is a Muslim Belgian of Moroccan origin, noted that the ideology of the Islamic State had nothing to do with the religion as she understands it.
But Corinne Torrekens, a political scientist at the Free University of Brussels who has been researching Islam in Belgium since 2004, said that Muslims were still seen as a threat by many in the country.
“The trial is very important for the victims, who need explanations,” Torrekens said. “But it will also bring up the polarizing issues of Islam and integration, in a context that is more tense in Belgium and Europe than ever before.”
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