Belgian court hands out heavy sentences over Brussels terror attack

Eight men given lengthy prison time over 2016 suicide bombings at airport and metro that killed 32 people and were claimed by Islamic State

An arrivals and departure board is seen behind blown out windows at Zaventem Airport in Brussels, March 23, 2016. (AP/Geert Vanden Wijngaert, Pool)
An arrivals and departure board is seen behind blown out windows at Zaventem Airport in Brussels, March 23, 2016. (AP/Geert Vanden Wijngaert, Pool)

BRUSSELS (AFP) — A Belgian court on Friday handed out sentences ranging up to life in prison to eight men for the 2016 jihadist bombings in Brussels, ending the country’s largest-ever criminal trial.

The suicide bombings on March 22, 2016 at Brussels’ main airport and on the metro system killed 32 people and were claimed by the Islamic State group.

French citizen Salah Abdeslam and Belgian-Moroccan Mohamed Abrini — already sentenced to life in jail by France for a 2015 massacre in Paris — were the highest-profile of six culprits found guilty of murder in July.

Abrini, who was one of the designated bombers but decided not to blow himself up at the last moment, was given a 30-year jail term.

The court ruled not to give Abdeslam an additional term after he was sentenced in Belgium to 20 years in 2018 over a shootout.

The bombings — near the headquarters of both NATO and the EU — were part of a wave of attacks claimed by the Islamic State group in Europe.

Lawyers attend the courtroom before reading the sentences in the trial of eight men found guilty of participation or complicity in the March 2016 attacks, at the Brussels-Capital Assizes Court in Justitia building in Brussels, on September 15, 2023 (JOHN THYS / POOL / AFP)

Hundreds of travelers and transport staff were maimed and, seven years on many victims, relatives and rescuers remain traumatized by the biggest peacetime attack in Belgium.

This image provided by the Belgian Federal Police shows three men who took part in the March 22, 2016 attacks at Belgium’s Zaventem Airport (Belgian Federal Police via AP)

Authorities later raised the official death toll from the attacks to 35, after finding a link between the trauma suffered and the later deaths of three more people.

Dozens of wounded survivors and bereaved relatives gave emotional testimony during the months of hearings.

The trial, which started at the end of last year, was held under tight security at the converted former headquarters of the NATO military alliance.

Abdeslam, who turned 34 on Friday, was the sole surviving perpetrator of the 2015 Paris attack that killed 130 people.

People gather to pay a tribute on March 27, 2016 outside the stock exchange in Brussels, which has become an unofficial shrine to victims of the March 22 terror attacks in the city. (AFP/Belga/Nicolas Maeterlinck)

He had fled to Brussels after taking part in the Paris attacks and holed up for four months in an apartment hosting members of the local cell.

He was arrested several days before the Brussels bombings took place, but the jury decided he was one of the co-authors of the attack.

A Belgian court turned down a request from the convict to stay in the country to carry out his sentence and he should eventually return to France to serve it.

Abrini was found guilty of being in one of the teams of suicide bombers who targeted Brussels’ airport and a metro station.

He testified that he had decided at the last minute not to detonate his explosive at the airport — as did another defendant, Osama Krayem, a Swede of Syrian descent.

This undated image made available by Belgium Federal Police shows Salah Abdeslam, the leading suspect and the only surviving member of the nine-member attacking team that terrorized Paris, in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015. The historic trial in Paris of 20 men suspected of critical roles in the Islamic State massacres that killed 130 people in 2015 has ended this week with verdicts against the defendants in France’s worst peacetime attack expected on Wednesday June 29. (Belgium Federal Police via AP, File)

Krayem was handed a life sentence, along with Bilal El Makhoukhi and Oussama Atar.

Atar, a senior commander in the Islamic State group who headed the jihadist cell, was tried in absentia because he is presumed to have died in Syria in 2017.

Herve Bayingana Muhirwa, found guilty of “participating in the activities of a terrorist group,” was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Tunisian Sofien Ayari, also convicted on that lesser charge, was like Abdeslam not handed additional jail time as the court said sentences in previous cases were sufficient.

The court ruled not to strip any of the convicts of their Belgian nationalities.

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