Sharia4Belgium trial starts amid massive security precautions

Summary

Leaders of Sharia4Belgium are on trial in Antwerp, accused of being members of a terrorist organisation

46 accused

The largest terrorism trial ever to take place in Belgium started on Monday in Antwerp amid heightened security. The 46 defendants are all charged with membership of a terrorist group, Sharia4Belgium, which recruited volunteers to go to Syria to fight for anti-government Islamist rebels.

Among the accused is the group’s leader, Fouad Belkacem, who was verbally attacked during the sitting by the mother of one of the jihadists, Brian De Mulder, who remains in Syria. His mother, Ozana Rodrigues, had been refused permission to defend her son in court. After her outburst, in which she accused Belkacem of ruining her life, she was ejected from the courtroom.

Earlier in the day, Belkacem had been transported from prison to the court in a bulletproof vehicle. Police arrived in four armoured vans. Members of the public lined up to go through metal detectors and claim a place in the crowded courtroom. Many of the places not taken up by accused and lawyers were filled by police, both in and out of uniform. Explosive-detecting dogs patrolled the building, both inside and out.

The prosecution’s star witness is Jejoen Bontinck (pictured), whose father, Dimitri, travelled to Syria in April of 2013 amid much media attention to retrieve him. Bontinck, the most prominent of the returned Syria jihadists, has now turned state’s evidence against Sharia4Belgium.

Belkacem is accused of being one of five leaders of the movement, and is the only one not to have travelled to Syria himself. He has been in prison since April last year, when he was arrested for hate speech.

If Sharia4Belgium is found to be a terrorist organisation, the leaders risk a sentence of 15 years; other members could be sentenced to up to five years. The trial is expected to finish by the end of the week.

In related news, a Ghent imam has spoken out against a proposal by senior politician Armand De Decker that returned Syria fighters should be detained in re-education camps. De Decker, a former minister and speaker of the Senate who is now mayor of Ukkel, said the returnees needed psychological support to respect Western values. According to imam Brahim Laytouss, a solution to the problem of radicalised youth has to come from the Islamic community.

Photo: Key witness Jejoen Bontinck arrives at the Antwerp court yesterday

©Yves Herman/REUTERS

Leaders of Sharia4Belgium are on trial in Antwerp, accused of being members of a terrorist organisation.

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The judicial system in Belgium is federally organised. It comprises several houses of justice, law and appeals courts.
Overhaul - The judicial system will be drastically reformed in 2014.
Antwerp - The Antwerp court will become the country’s largest after the reforms.
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