The trial will be the largest ever staged in front of a Belgian jury

Belgium’s biggest trial begins six years after horrific terror attack

The trial will be the largest ever before a Belgian jury – Copyright Belga/AFP/File LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ

Mathieu DEMESTR

Six years after Belgium’s deadliest peacetime terrorist attack, a landmark trial will take place in a Brussels court this week that survivors hope will be a step forward in their recovery and the recovery of their nation.

The case against alleged members of the Islamic State (IS) group, which orchestrated the Brussels suicide attacks in March 2016 and the Paris attacks in November 2015, will begin on Monday.

The attacks in Belgium, in which three suicide bombers blew up Brussels airport and a crowded metro station, claimed the lives of 32 people and hundreds of survivors.

Nine alleged jihadists, including 32-year-old French cell leader Salah Abdeslam, will face various charges. One allegedly killed in Syria will be tried in his absence.

The trial will be the largest ever before a Belgian jury, featuring 960 civil plaintiffs, and the sprawling former headquarters of the NATO military alliance will be converted into a high-security court complex.

Abdeslam, already convicted in France and sentenced to life in prison for his role in Paris, will not attend Monday’s preliminary hearing, his lawyer said.

– ‘Turn the page’ –

But many victims of the attacks plan to attend court from day one, seeking understanding and closure after the massacre.

“My life was completely destroyed. I lost friends, gave up my hobby as a pilot,” said Philip Vandenberg, an airport manager who rushed to the aid of injured passengers and is now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Vandenberge had a first aid certificate, but nothing to prepare him for the aftermath of an indiscriminate attack on a crowded airport lobby.

He faced screaming victims, shrouded in thick smoke and surrounded by broken glass and twisted metal.

The image of two children who have just lost their mother haunts him.

“I gave first aid to 18 different people. I’m sure I saved one woman,” the 51-year-old told AFP at his home in Louvain-la-Neuve.

Today, he is unemployed after a legal battle with his former employer and insurance company over medical bills. He paints, helps charities and is studying to be an ambulance driver.

On Monday, he will appear in court, hoping that the trial will begin a new phase of his recovery.

“We hope that our suffering will be recognized, this is an important part,” he said.

Before the bombings, Sebastien Bellin, now 44, was a professional basketball player. Now, after about 15 surgeries, he has lost the use of one leg and is still going through the experience.

“I don’t know if it’s possible to turn the page, what happened will always exist within us,” he said.

“Personally, I gave up all hatred that would waste the energy I needed to restore myself. I have also come to terms with my handicap,” he said, calling the trial “an important step.”

Some victims and witnesses will not be present at the hearing. Chief of Police Christian de Coninck will follow him out of the house, I doubt the defendant will say anything constructive.

“They are not worth my travel time,” he told AFP. “I don’t want to hear them talk about their miserable childhood, powerful imams, duty to fight for the Caliphate.”

After a preliminary hearing on Monday, the court will meet again on October 10 to select 12 jurors and 24 potential alternates. The evidence hearing will begin on October 13 and will last eight months, until June next year.

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