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Hearings over 22 March terrorist trial will end today

A memorial to the victims of the terror attacks of 22 March 2016. © Miguel Discart/Wikimedia

Hearings held to prepare for the mammoth trial of those accused of the March 2016 terrorist attacks are expected to end in Brussels today, earlier than expected.

The hearings have been held in the new Justitia court site at the former Nato headquarters on the edge of the city. The main purpose was to determine who would go to trial, what the charges would be, and what sort of trial it will be.

Those are deliberations that take place before any trial involving charges serious enough to merit a prison sentence, and normally are completed in a day.

The 22 March trial, however, is of a complexity never seen before in Belgium, to the extent that a new court site has had to be created to house the parties taking part.

Firstly, there are ten men accused of taking part in the organisation of the attack, one of whom actually took part. The other three bombers involved at Brussels Airport and at Maelbeek Metro station died in the attacks they triggered themselves.

One man, however, turned up at the airport with his suitcase bomb but left before the attack. He was arrested later.

As well as the accused and their lawyers, there are also some 680 civil parties – representing the people killed or injured in the two attacks. Each of them has the right to attend the trial and speak.

Lastly, there is the question of what sort of trail should take place: one before a bench of professional judges – the correctional court – or an assizes trial before a jury of members of the public.

Given the gravity of the charges – 32 counts of murder aggravated by a terrorist motive – the last question was rapidly disposed of without long discussion. The trial will take place before a civilian jury, and all accused will be tried together.

The proceedings this week were curtailed by the decision of the civil parties to agree on the arguments made by the prosecutor. Only a few were present yesterday to take the floor themselves.

Another surprise came when defence lawyers decided not to plead the case for their clients at this time, but to wait for the trial itself.

The defence lawyers have chosen to keep their arguments for the actual trial,” Hamid El Abouti, lawyer for the family of victim Loubna Lafquiri, told Bruzz.

That is a deliberate strategy to not give the federal prosecutor’s office the opportunity to prepare for a year or two. That way they may be able to spring a surprise on the trial process.”

After the proceedings wrap up today, after only three days instead of the predicted two weeks, the long wait continues, with a final decision on the accused coming on 5 January, while the trial itself is not expected to take place before the end of 2021.

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times