Brussels bombing trial: judge calls for dialogue after accusations of violence

Ali Haddad Asufi claims he was mistreated in retaliation for complaining about security measures

A court sketch of Bilal El Makhouki, one of those standing trial for the 2016 atrocities. AFP
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The presiding judge of the Brussels bombing trial on Thursday intervened to call for improved relations between the parties involved after one of the defendants accused a policeman of strangling him.

The incident was said to have been in retaliation for him publicly complaining about security measures, which led to a walkout by the already convicted prisoners.

Judge Laurence Massart read out a letter that she had written to the Belgian Justice Ministry bringing attention to complaints made by defendants in the hope that "dialogue returns between the police, concerned ministries, and the prosecution so that this trial can be held in the best conditions possible".

Seven defendants sitting together in a glass box around midday exited the courtroom shortly after Ms Massart finished reading the letter.

Two others, who are attending as free men and can sit outside the box, remained in the courtroom.

The collective walk-out came after Ali El Haddad Asufi complained he had been attacked by a masked policeman as he exited his cell to be transported to court north of Brussels in Nato's former headquarters.

Masked policemen accompany defendants when they enter the courtroom and remain in the box during hearings.

Asufi's lawyer Jonathan De Taye asked for a medical examiner to make note of his neck wounds, which led to a brief suspension of the hearing to allow for the examination. "I lost consciousness. My head is still spinning,” said Asufi before limping out of the box to be examined.

Doctor Jessica Banhaebost said Asufi suffered from bruises on his neck which matched his description of being placed in an arm lock until he fainted.

Dr Banhaebost told Ms Massart she had no way of establishing the loss of consciousness but said she had also noted a bump on the back of his head and cuts on his legs which could correspond with his description of falling to the ground and being dragged away.

Asufi exited the courtroom to protest against his alleged mistreatment despite Dr Banhaebost saying he was medically fit to continue attending the trial.

Six defendants — Mohamed Abrini, Osama Krayem, Salah Abdeslam, Herve Bayingana Muhirwa, Bilal El Makhouki, and Sofien Ayari — walked out with him in solidarity.

"I cannot pretend nothing happened," said Muhirwa, who claimed to have witnessed the incident. "During the trip [to the court] there was next to me a body that was not moving. As soon as [Asufi] woke up, he asked for a bag to throw up in."

Mr De Taye said his client had been mistreated for publicly speaking out on Wednesday about "humiliating" security procedures, which included strip searches and being filmed while in the toilet. He said he had referred the incident to the Brussels Public Prosecutor's Office.

The suspension interrupted the reading of the charges by prosecutors against the 10 defendants — one of them reportedly died in Syria in 2017 — which started on Monday and was scheduled to end later on Thursday.

Asufi, 38, is a Belgian citizen who was a close friend of one of the suicide bombers in the triple attacks on Brussels on March 22, 2016. They were claimed by ISIS and killed 32 and wounded more than 300.

A French court in June sentenced Asufi to 10 years in prison for providing weapons to a terrorist cell that plotted the November 2015 attacks in Paris which killed 130 people.

Chairwoman of the court Laurence Massart at the start of the trial at the Justitia building in Brussels. EPA

His accusation of violence against Belgian police on Wednesday kickstarted the latest in a string of disruptions of the long-awaited trial, the largest in Belgian history.

Its start was delayed by a few weeks after lawyers told the court that the originally planned separate glass cubicles for each accused would impede communication between them. The cubicles were taken down and replaced with one shared box.

When it began on Monday, Abrini said he would not answer any questions if conditions of his daily transport from jail, which include strip searches and blindfolds, did not change.

Prosecutors say Abrini fled Brussels Airport in March 2016 without detonating his suitcase of explosives, unlike the two men who accompanied him, Najim Laachraoui and Ibrahim El Bakraoui.

The repeated incidents and subsequent delays have caused uneasiness among victims, said Jamila Adda, president of Life4Brussels, an organisation set up to help the victims of the Brussels attacks.

“If what defendants are saying is true, that’s scandalous and must be addressed,” she told The National. “It also makes the life of victims more difficult.”

“I can’t stop wondering why this didn’t happen in the Paris trials. This reflects very badly on Belgium.

Mr De Taye on Wednesday said Asufi had been co-operative during the trial in France which ended earlier this year.

"French police aren't punks, they had reasonable security measures accepted by all," he said.

Updated: December 08, 2022, 1:35 PM