The largest trial in Belgian history kicked off on Monday with 10 men accused of involvement in a triple Islamist suicide attack in Brussels in 2016 that killed 32 people and injured more than 300.
Set to last seven months, the long-awaited trial revived painful memories for those who lost loved ones or got caught up in the blasts on March 22, 2016, two of which targeted the city airport while a third hit the metro.
“I had a lot of trouble sleeping last night,” Christelle Giovannetti, who now wears hearing aids due to injuries she sustained in the metro bombing, told reporters.
Six of the accused were found guilty in June of involvement in terror attacks in Paris in November 2015, which killed 130 people. Unlike in France, the Belgian trial will be determined by a jury, not judges.
Nearly 1,000 people are being represented in the Brussels hearings, underscoring how many lives were impacted by the attacks.
Sylvie Ingels, who was near the first airport explosion, said she has had repeated nightmares in recent days.
“If I come today it’s to make this step and go beyond my fears … It’s their trial but also ours. We are waiting for answers,” she said.
Nine of the accused are charged with multiple murders and attempted murders in a terrorist context and face potential life sentences. One member of the group is presumed to have been killed in Syria and is being tried in absentia.
Presiding judge Laurence Massart confirmed the identity of the defendants and outlined the trial schedule.
Complaints in court
Mohamed Abrini, who prosecutors say fled the airport without detonating his suitcase of explosives, interrupted the judge to complain about the conditions of his daily transport from jail.
If strip searches, blindfolds, and “satanic music” played through headphones continued, he said, he would refuse to answer any questions. Lawyers for other accused also complained, saying this had not happened in a parallel trial in Paris.
Loubna Selassi, whose husband was an airport baggage handler and lost a leg in the bombings, said Abrini’s complaint had been hard to hear.
“We’ve been suffering for six years, almost seven, and we don’t talk about our dignity. We have to fight every day,” she said.
The Brussels bombings were claimed by Islamic State and killed 15 men and 17 women, who came from Belgium, the United States, Netherlands, Sweden, Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Peru, and Poland — many of them based in the city which is home to EU institutions and NATO.
Three suicide attackers also died in the blasts.
Amongst those on trial is Salah Abdeslam, the main suspect in the Paris trial, and Osama Krayem, a Swedish national accused of planning to be a second bomber at the metro.
In accordance with Belgian court procedure, the defendants have not declared whether they are innocent or guilty.
Prosecutors are expected to start reading from the 486-page indictment on Tuesday before hearings of some 370 experts and witnesses can begin.
The trial in the former headquarters of NATO is estimated to cost at least $37.1 million.
Copyright 2022 Thomson/Reuters