Victims and lawyers involved in Belgium’s largest trial expressed satisfaction on Tuesday after a jury found six out of 10 defendants guilty of murder and attempted murder in two ISIS claimed attacks in Brussels in 2016.
“I’m very happy,” said Philippe Vandenberghe, a former employee at Zaventem airport, where one of the two suicide attacks took place on March 22, 2016. “We hope to be able to soon turn the page.”
Pierre-Yves Desaive, who also survived the airport attack, thanked the jury of 12 Belgian citizens who had been deliberating in a secret location since July 6.
“What they have heard and seen in the past seven months will be heavy for them to bear,” Mr Desaive told reporters.
The trial, which started in December, will hold separate hearings in September to determine sentences.
The jury granted the status of victims to three people who died in the months and years after the attacks: Mathieu Fischer, Shanti de Corte and Xavier Legrand.
This brings the official number of dead to 35 instead of 32, as previously stated.
Ms de Corte, who was at Zaventem airport when it was hit by the attacks, was 23 years old when she asked to be euthanisied in May 2022.
She suffered from major PTSD and tried to commit suicide several times, said presiding judge Laurence Massart.
Mr Legrand's cancer treatment stopped working after his treatment for wounds sustained in the metro attack and he died in February 2017. Mr Fischer died by suicide in April 2021.
Abdeslam and Abrini found guilty on all charges
Six of the defendants were found guilty on all charges of murder, attempted murder and participation in a terrorist organisation.
They include French national Salah Abdeslam and Belgian-Moroccan Mohamed Abrini.
Abrini is known as the “man with the hat” after a picture of him pushing a trolley at Zaventem airport taken shortly before the attacks was widely circulated.
Both men had already been sentenced to life in prison in a separate trial in Paris last summer for their role in deadly attacks against the French capital in November 2015.
Abdeslam is the only survivor of the group that carried out the attacks in France.
His media notoriety turned him into a symbol which “reinforced the determination of the [Brussels] group to act,” said Ms Massart, who read the verdict out loud to the court for more than five hours, ending shortly after midnight.
Abdeslam actively took part in the wave of attacks on European soil perpetrated by ISIS which aimed at killing a maximum number of people with explosives and weapons of war, according to Ms Massart.
Abrini’s lawyer Stanislas Eskenazi told reporters that he was not surprised by the verdict because his client had pleaded guilty even though he had minimised his role in the preparation of the attacks.
“He welcomed the verdict with [a sense of] responsibility,” said Mr Eskenazi. “He had confessed from the start and had recognised that he recognised his responsibility” in the attacks.
The other defendants who were also found guilty on all three counts are Swedish national Osama Krayem, and Belgian-Moroccan citizens Ali El Haddad Asufi and Bilal El Makhouki.
Osama Atar, who was found guilty of being the cell’s ringleader, is presumed to have died in Syria in 2017.
The jury was not convinced by El Makhouki’s plea of guilt for complicity in war crimes and found that he was guilty of terrorism crimes.
The jury said that they based their argument on previous comments made by El Makhouki, including the fact that he had told investigators in 2016 that Syria, not Belgium, was a “war zone.”
El Makhouki's lawyer said last month that his client’s crimes were a continuation of the civil war in Syria.
In a surprising twist, Tunisian national Sofien Ayari was absolved of charges of murder and attempted murder. He was, however, found guilty of participation in a terrorist organisation.
Ayari had already been sentenced to 30 years in prison in the Paris trial last year and to 20 years in Belgium in 2018 for his role in a shoot-out with police during which Abdeslam was present.
Both Ayari and Abdeslam were arrested after the shoot-out took place, eight days before the attacks on the Belgian capital.
Abdeslam failed to convince the jury that he could not have been aware of the cell’s plans to attack Brussels because he was in prison at the time.
Ayari 'satisfied' with verdict
Abrini said during the trial that their arrest changed the cell's plans, which had initially been to launch a second attack in France during the UEFA Euro 2016 championships.
After the arrest, they hastily planned an attack against Brussels, according to Abrini.
The court found that Ayari did not intend to take part in terrorist attacks on European soil and wished at the time to return to fight in Syria.
He travelled to Syria in 2014 to join ISIS and left in mid-2015 for Europe.
“It is likely that the accused wished to return to Syria and not to remain available to the group to commit terrorist acts,” said Ms Massart.
Ayari’s lawyer Laura Severin said that the main difference between her client and Abdeslam was that written testaments linked to Abedslam were found by Belgian investigators, but none were found for Ayari.
“He is satisfied” with the verdict, Ms Severin said. “He said from the start that he was determined to return to Syria.”
Lawyer Jean-Philippe Mayence, who represented victims of the attacks, said that the difference made by the court between Ayari and Abdeslam reflected “extremely thorough work” on the part of the jury.
Belgian Rwandan national Herve Bayingana Muhirwa, who converted to Islam shortly after his younger brother's death in 2011, was found guilty of participation in a terrorist group but not of murder or attempted murder.
His lawyer Vincent Lurquin told reporters that he hoped that Muhirwa would be freed after sentences are issued in two months.
He has been imprisoned since the 2016 attacks.
Two brothers, Smail and Ibrahim Farisi, were acquitted on all charges. Smail Farisi had rented a flat to Krayem and one of the suicide bombers but said he were unaware of their intentions.
The brothers cleaned the flat after the attacks on March 23, 2016.
Ibrahim Farisi was seen hugging his lawyer after the verdict, but declined to talk to reporters.