Former Nato building to host terrorist attack trial


Conference rooms in the former buildings that housed Nato in Brussels are being adapted to be able to hold the biggest trial in the history of the country

Practical and secure

Part of the former buildings that housed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) in Brussels are being transformed into courthouses. Next month the preliminary hearings at the new site will be held – in the case against suspects involved in the 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels and Zaventem.

Nato moved to its new headquarters two years ago, and since then its former home has lain empty. But the site will soon be active again and the focus of huge media attention when it plays host to Belgium’s largest-ever courtroom. It will be the venue for the trial of suspects involved in the plot that led to the bombings at Brussels Airport and the Maalbeek metro station.

The former Nato headquarters, which straddles Brussels-City and Evere on the outskirts of the capital, will be renamed The Justitia. A Brussels court will rule next month on who will go to trial and on what charges.

The number of civil parties alone – those who have the right to attend the trial – will number more than 900

The actual trial relating to the attacks, expected to be the biggest in Belgian history, is expected to take place in 2022 and last about six months. Until then, the buildings at Nato will be used for other meetings and procedural hearings in connection with the attacks, or with other trials.

The main aim of the move to the former Nato site is to relieve congestion in the current courthouse, the Palace of Justice on Poelaertplein in central Brussels. That building is unable to accommodate several hundred people involved in the same case, especially during the current pandemic.

The number of civil parties alone – those who have the right to attend the trial – will number more than 900. Additionally, the international media will be following the case closely from the capital, which is already home to the second-largest press corps in the world after Washington, DC.

Nato’s former headquarters is a massive site that offers ample space for Belgium’s biggest trial ©Courtesy Nato

Also, the additional security required at a major terrorism trial would cause significant disruption to the centre of Brussels. “If we had held those trials in the Justice Palace, it would have required adjustments,” said Wenke Roggen of the federal public prosecutor’s office. “And those trials risked dominating the entire building. So this is really a relief for the Palace of Justice.”

The former Nato site remains in good condition. After housing such a high-profile organisation, the site is also very secure: an open perimeter surrounded by fencing, every inch covered by security cameras, with one single entrance that can be easily guarded.

But a lot of things still need to be considered, says Roggen. “There must be checkpoints, cells and a specific entrance for people who appear in custody, access for staff, entry for citizens who would attend the trial, places for journalists, et cetera,” she says. “All of this must be practical and above all secure.”

I have been assured that it is possible and that it will work

- Wenke Roggen

However, time is running out to get the site up and running in the space, housed in several former Nato spaces, including the former council chamber and the main meeting room for representatives of the 30 member states and their entourages (pictured above).

The first hearing to consider the trial of the suspects of the attacks of 22 March 2016, is due to run from 7 to 18 December. It has already been postponed several times due to the Covid-19 crisis.

“I have been assured that it is possible and that it will work,” Roggen said. The contractors “are doing everything possible. So I am confident.”

Photo top: The conference space that was home to Nato’ biggest summits will host the actual trial of those accused of collaborating to carry out the 2016 terrorist attacks
©Courtesy Nato