A jury in a Belgian criminal court sentenced seven men responsible for organizing a series of bombings in Brussels in March 2016 on Friday to prison terms ranging from 10 years to life. The sentences arrived seven years after the deadliest terrorist assault in Belgium’s history, which ruptured a multicultural society and sent shock waves across Europe.
Three of the men, found guilty of murder and attempted murder earlier this year, were sentenced to life imprisonment, including one who is presumed dead in Syria. Four others, including two whom the jury acquitted of murder charges but found guilty of participating in the activities of a terrorist group, were handed sentences from 10 to 30 years.
The jury did not give a new sentence to Salah Abdeslam, who already was condemned to life imprisonment over the organization of 2015 attacks in Paris and to 20 years over participation in a separate shooting in 2016, having assessed that the existing sentences were “enough.”
The jury decided against revoking the Belgian nationality of five men, which had been requested by the federal prosecutor’s office. That request had brought accusations of racism from legal representatives for the five men, four of them Belgian Moroccan and one Belgian Rwandan.
The presiding judge, Laurence Massart, read the jury’s sentences in the former NATO headquarters in Brussels, which had been transformed into a court for the purpose of this trial. The decision capped a long and painful justice-seeking process for the victims but left many questions unanswered about the motives of the homebred terrorists and whether the authorities did enough to prevent the assaults.
Three homemade bombs packed with nails were detonated in an airport departure hall and a busy subway station on March 22, 2016, killing 32 people from eight countries and wounding 340 others. The assaults were claimed by the same Islamic State cell that took responsibility for a string of terrorist attacks in Paris the previous year, making the two combined attacks the deadliest operation carried out by the Islamic State in Europe. The detonations in Brussels also killed three suicide bombers, Najim Laachraoui, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui and Khalid el-Bakraoui.
A much-anticipated trial of 10 men accused of preparing the Brussels attacks lasted eight months, ending in July, and was the largest ever in Belgium, with testimony from almost 1,000 registered survivors, witnesses and experts.
This year, a jury of Brussels residents of varied ages and ethnic backgrounds found eight men guilty and acquitted two before disbanding for a summer recess. They restarted their work on Monday and reached an agreement on the sentencing after five days of deliberations in a secret location and without contact with the outside world.
The group of eight included Salah Abdeslam, the only Paris attacker who is still alive; Mohamed Abrini, who was at Brussels Airport earlier in March 2016 and abandoned a suitcase of explosives without detonating it; and Osama Krayem, a Swede who was accused of planning to participate in the subway bombings. One of the men, Oussama Attar, was tried in absentia; he was pronounced dead by the Islamic State in November 2017, though his death has never been confirmed.
Four men who were sentenced on Friday were punished in an earlier trial over the Paris attacks, making it unclear where they would serve their sentences.
Most of the organizers who carried out the attacks in Paris and Brussels, Europe were European nationals. Their involvement spotlighted painful divisions in the continent’s largely secular societies, with many pointing fingers at governments for abandoning some of their citizens and to security services for not having done more to prevent the violence.
Although the number of Islamist terrorist attacks across Europe has diminished significantly compared with the peak of 2015-2016, the Belgian terrorism agency assessed in a report last year that “the greatest threat still comes from individuals driven by jihadist-Islamist rhetoric.” It added, “The ideology of the Islamic State, and to a lesser extent that of Al Qaeda, remains a source of inspiration.”