Six years after the attacks, Belgium prepares for the biggest trial


The worst peacetime massacre at Elgium left 32 dead and hundreds scarred for life. Now, six and a half years later, Brussels will host the biggest criminal trial in its history.

Jury selection begins Wednesday before hearings on charges against the nine suspected jihadists accused of involvement in the March 2016 suicide bombings.

The case will be heard at the former headquarters of the NATO military alliance, temporarily converted into a huge, high-security court complex.

Hundreds of witnesses and victims will testify in the coming months, some still hoping that telling their stories will offer them some measure of closure.

The case will not be the first for Salah Abdeslam, 33, who was convicted in France as the ringleader of the November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris that left 130 dead.

He is serving a life sentence without parole in France but faces new charges in Belgium.

Both sets of attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group and investigators believe they were carried out by the same Belgium-based cell, including Abdeslam.

The group was planning more violence, allegedly including attacks at the Euro 2016 soccer cup in France, but moved quickly after Abdeslam was arrested on March 18.

Four days later, on March 22, two attackers blew themselves up at the Brussels airport and another at a metro station in the city center near the headquarters of the European Union.

Along with the dead, hundreds of travelers and transport personnel were maimed, and six years later, many victims, family members and rescuers are still traumatized.

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Five of the nine defendants who will appear in the dock have already been convicted in the French trial. A tenth will be tried in absentia because it is believed that he was killed in Syria.

traumatized victims

According to the US Attorney’s office, more than 1,000 people have registered as civil plaintiffs to receive a hearing as alleged victims of the crime.

This makes this trial, scheduled to run until June 2023 at the former NATO headquarters, the largest ever staged before a Belgian criminal court.

“I don’t really expect many answers,” said Sandrine Couturier, who was on the Maelbeek metro platform and plans to come face the defendants.

“But I want to confront myself with what human beings are capable of. I have to accept that not everyone is good,” the PTSD survivor told AFP.

Like many of those who have spoken to journalists, he suffers from memory loss and concentration problems. Many seek treatment for depression.

Sebastien Bellin, a former professional basketball player who was scheduled to fly to New York on the morning of March 22, lost the use of his leg in the attack.

Today he says he doesn’t feel hate. “It would drain me of the energy I need to rebuild myself,” she says.

Jury selection in the case is expected to be tough.

The court has summoned 1,000 citizens to choose from among them 12 main jurors with 24 alternates on standby and capable of following the daily evidentiary hearings for months.

The trial should have started in October, but there was controversy over the dock, in which the defendants were to have been held in individual glass-walled boxes.

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The defendants’ areas were redeveloped as a single shared space and after Wednesday’s day-long hearing for jury selection testimony will begin on December 5.

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