Brussels attacks: Abdeslam refuses to appear in glass box at largest trial ever in Belgium

This Monday 12 September, the trial of the Brussels attacks committed on March 22, 2016 begins. A historic trial that could last up to nine months. The preliminary hearing of the trial opened shortly before 9.30 AM before the Assize Court of Brussels, relocated to Justitia and the former headquarters of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO), in Haren.

Nine alleged members of an ISIS cell that launched both the March 2016 suicide bombings in Belgium and the November 2015 attacks in Paris face terrorism charges. Concerning the Belgian attacks, three suicide bombers hit Brussels airport and a crowded underground metro station, killed 32 people and shattered the lives of hundreds of wounded or traumatized survivors.

All the nine living accused were present at the opening today. A tenth suspect, presumed killed while fighting in Syria, will be tried in absentia. But some present accused refused to appear and returned to their cells.

French and Brussels-born extremist Salah Abdeslam, already jailed for his role in the 2015 Paris attacks, refused to take the stand on the first day of the trial. Initially, he agreed to attend the hearing, but changed his mind:

“The trial begins unfairly. I wanted to appear, but since most of the co-defendants do not appear, I will not appear”.

Glass box

A large courtroom has been installed, with individual and closed glazed boxes for the accused. The spaces are provided with a ventilation device and a slot which must allow the passage of documents.

Abdeslam's lawyer, Delphine Paci, resisted her client appearing before the assize court in a glass box. She based it on the European Convention on Human Rights and also referred to the victims.

"It is absolutely not in the interest of those victims that this whole process should be repeated in ten years' time after Belgium has been convicted by the European Court of Human Rights," said the lawyer. "It is also not in the interest of the victims that the accused do not speak here. In Paris, at the trial of the November 13 attacks, they did, and they were not in a glass box. What we're asking is a serene process, a process that makes sense."

For the accused' lawyers, this type of cubicle hinders the rights of the defense because it prevents spontaneous contact with their clients, and because it violates the presumption of innocence, since the image of locked up individuals induces the feeling that they are automatically guilty.

On the other hand, the police services believe that these boxes are necessary to ensure optimal security. It is the president of the court who will decide over this issue and is entitled to ask to rearrange the boxes differently for October 13, the date of the start of the trial.

Other accused

Only three out of the nine men remained at the trial stand today: Ibrahim Farisi, Bilal El Makhoukhi and Hervé B. Muhirwa. At their request, Abrini, Krayem, El Haddad Asufi, Ayari and Smaïl Farisi went back to their cell.

With regard to Osama Atar, probably dead in 2017 by an American drone strike, he is however judged by default.

Marie Berquin, appointed ex officio to defend him, declared that she "did not wish to represent him".

Largest trial ever

The trial is the largest ever staged in front of a Belgian jury, with 960 civil plaintiffs represented and the former headquarters of the NATO converted into a high-security court complex.

The purpose of this first hearing is to determine, with all the parties, the list of witnesses to be heard. It is also during this hearing that any procedural problems relating to the admissibility of the proceedings are raised.

After today's preliminary hearing, the court will sit again on October 10 to choose 12 jurors and 24 potential substitutes. Debates on the merits will then begin on Thursday 13 October. The entire trial is expected to last six to nine months.



© BELGA PHOTO (JOHN THYS / POOL / AFP) Courtroom in Brussels before the preliminary hearing in trial of suspects in March 2016 attacks, on September 12, 2022.

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