Brussels bombings terrorists show some remorse in court

Convicted extremists face survivors of 2016 attacks and victims’ families ahead of sentencing

A court sketch of Salah Abdeslam, left, and lawyer Bernard Renson, representing the Belgian state, in court near Brussels AFP
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Terrorists found guilty of the Brussels attacks in which 32 people were killed expressed regret for their actions in court on Monday.

The suicide attacks in the Belgian capital’s main airport and metro system on March 22, 2016 were claimed by ISIS.

In July, the jury found six defendants guilty on all charges of murder, attempted murder and participation in a terrorist organisation.

Several of those on trial had already been convicted of taking part in the Paris terrorist attacks months earlier in which 137 people died.

“I have empathy for you,” said the trial’s most high-profile offender, 33-year-old Frenchman Salah Abdeslam, as he spoke directly to victims sitting in the courtroom north of Brussels.

“I thought of you and I questioned myself. I am not proud to see women who have been disfigured, wounded in the flesh – and men too,” he said.

Abdeslam was already handed a life sentence without parole last year in Paris for co-organising attacks in 2015 that killed 130 people but has always denied being involved in the Brussels attacks.

He acknowledged on Monday that a statement earlier this year in court, in which he said those killed and injured in the Brussels attacks were “not my victims,” had been “tactless”.

He said he had spent six-and-a-half years in prison in isolation without speaking to anyone. As a result, “sometimes, you don’t find the right words,” Abdeslam said.

The terrorist also sought to blame international politics and the civil war in Syria for his decision to join ISIS. He described how he had been influenced by the large number of young men in his neighbourhood in Brussels who left the country to join rebel groups in Syria after the start of the war in 2011.

Monday was the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks against the US. Fellow convicted terrorist Mohamed Abrini, 38, referred to this and said: “Many lives have been turned upside down because of events that happen everywhere on Earth and because of politics.”

Abrini seemed agitated as he spoke to the court and played with his watch.

Abrini, who holds Belgian and Moroccan citizenship, was also sentenced in Paris to life in prison, with 22 years minimum behind bars.

Abdeslam, Abrini and five other offenders were given the opportunity to give one last public speech before sentencing later this week.

Prosecutors had previously asked the jury to sentence the men to life in prison and described Abdeslam as unable to express empathy for his victims but keen to express self-pity.

Belgian Moroccans Ali El Haddad Asufi and Bilal El Makhouki, who were also found guilty on all three counts, said they regretted their actions.

El Makhouki said the trial had made him realise the huge impact the attacks had.

“I cannot excuse myself for what I did,” he said.

Asufi, sentenced to 10 years in prison in Paris, said the greatest mistake of his life was to have been friends with one of the two suicide bombers in Brussels, Ibrahim El Bakraoui.

“He destroyed my life, but I also destroyed it by not asking myself the right questions,” he said.

Swedish citizen Osama Krayem, also found guilty on all three counts, refused to speak on Monday after remaining silent for most of the trial.

A sixth man, Oussama Atar, is believed to have died in fighting for ISIS is Syria in 2017.

Sofien Ayari, who is Tunisian, was sentenced to 30 years in prison in Paris but absolved in Brussels of the charges of murder and attempted murder.

Ayari said he had already expressed his regrets in a previous hearing, when he mistakenly thought it would be the last time he could speak in public, and had nothing to add.

Herve Bayingana Muhirwa, of Belgian and Rwandan nationality, was found guilty of participation in a terrorist group.

“I cannot repair what happened on March 22, but I’ll try my best to do something better,” said Muhirwa.

After the hearing, victims' families and survivors could be seen leaving the courtroom in tears.

“It wasn’t easy,” said Philippe Vansteenkiste, who lost his sister Fabienne in the airport attack.

“We are in a highly emotional moment, and I think I need time to digest what I heard.

“But some of them still have tunnel vision. There’s still a lot of work to do. I would like to hear them again in a few months or even a year to hear how they feel – it would be more sincere.”

Philippe Vandenberghe, a former employee at Zaventem airport, said he was doubtful whether Abdeslam would ever “calm down”.

“Abdeslam is still very angry against the state and the judicial system,” he said.

Updated: September 11, 2023, 6:48 PM