Brussels 2016 bombings trial disrupted as five defendants walk out in protest at security

A prosecutor described intrusive measures as "shocking" but said responsibility lies with Ministry of Justice

A courtroom sketch of defendants Salah Abdeslam and Sofien Ayari at their trial where they are accused of involvement in the 2016 Brussels attacks. AFP
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Five of nine defendants in Belgium's biggest trial walked out of court on Wednesday, in a protest over security arrangements.

A support group for victims of the 2016 Brussels terrorist attacks for which the men are on trial described this as an attempt to win the jury's sympathy.

Before leaving, defendant Ali El Haddad Asufi, 38, a close friend of a suicide bomber in the attacks that killed 32 people, told the court the trial would be a waste of time and money if defendants refused to attend over “humiliating” security measures.

“We can't last seven months in these conditions,” he said. “There's a camera over the toilets. I don't understand why it's necessary to see detainees doing their business.”

The other defendants who walked out were Mohamed Abrini, Osama Krayem, Salah Abdeslam and Sofien Ayari.

Complaints made by Asufi, who in June was sentenced by a French court to 10 years in prison for his role in the 2015 Paris attacks, follows similar statements by another defendant at the start of the trial, which is taking place north of Brussels in Nato’s former headquarters.

Abrini, who in June received a life sentence from a French court for his role in the Paris attacks, said he would not answer any questions if conditions of his daily transport from jail 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.

Abrini on Monday described music played through headphones while he was being taken to and from the court as “satanic”.

Combined with a blindfold, music is meant to disorientate detainees and reduce chances of escape during transfer.

Justice Ministry 'inertia'

Asufi's lawyer, Jonathan De Taye, said that such security conditions had not been enforced in the Paris bombing trial and criticised the Belgian Ministry of Justice for “inertia”.

These measures are implemented in the case of highly dangerous detainees and it remains unlikely that the Ministry of Interior or Ministry of Justice would grant exemptions for the Brussels bombing trial.

The trial, which started on Monday, is expected to last up to nine months. The nine defendants will be cross-examined from December 19.

A 10th man, Osama Atar, is believed to have been killed fighting with ISIS in Syria in 2017.

On Wednesday morning, only two defendants were left sitting behind a glass screen in the court, Bilal El Makhoukhi and Herve Bayingana Muhirwa. They were surrounded by masked police officers.

A courtroom sketch of defendant Mohamed Abrini speaking at the trial. AFP

The two other defendants, brothers Smail Farisi and Ibrahim Farisi, who had been released on bail, sat outside the glass box with their lawyers.

Prosecutors allege that Smail Farisi rented his flat in Etterbeek, in the Brussels region, to Khalid El Bakraoui — brother of Ibrahim El Bakraoui and a fellow bomber — and cleaned it with Ibrahim Farisi after the attacks, which were claimed by ISIS.

Philippe Vansteenkiste, the director of Victims-Europe, a non-profit Brussels-based organisation created in the aftermath of the attacks, told The National that such disruptions were to be expected.

“You have to understand that this is a popular jury and what they are trying to do is to impress the emotions of the jury,” he said.

The 12 people jury was picked at random among a pool of 1,000 Belgians aged between 28 and 65. Behind the jury sit 24 replacements. They all face the defendants in the courtroom.

Jury members are obliged to attend or face a fine of up to 8,000 euros ($8,290).

The defendants also caused controversy at the start of the trial by asking to be together in a glass box, instead of sitting in separate cubicles.

“I expect more incidents like this to happen”, said Mr Vansteenkiste, who lost his sister in the attacks.

Prosecutor Paule Somers said that prosecutors, who do not have the authority to change security measures, had asked about the toilet cameras — which she described as “shocking”.

The prosecutors were told that the cameras were not directed towards detainees and that if they did appear to be, they would be covered, Ms Somers said.

Presiding judge Laurence Massart said she would write to the Justice Ministry regarding the matter on Wednesday, but also had no authority on the matter.

“We hear you and we hope everything will go well,” she told Asufi.

Victims of the Brussels attacks said they were shocked by Abrini's complaints.

“We've been suffering for six years, almost seven, and we don't talk about our dignity. We have to fight every day,” said Loubna Selassi, whose husband was an airport baggage handler and lost a leg in the bombings.

In addition to the 32 people killed, more than 300 people were wounded in the triple suicide bombings on the morning of March 22, 2016.

These were two blasts at check-in at Brussels Airport at around 8am, followed by a third attack at Maelbeek metro station in Brussels, at just after 9am.

Prosecutors have devoted the first days of the long-awaited trial to detailing how the defendants allegedly prepared their assault. This included by making bombs with Christmas garlands, the prosecution said.

Bombs made with Christmas tree lights

“Living in hiding necessitates considerable logistics, or relying on a trusted network, or using different strategies to discreetly rent apartments with, very often, fake payslips,” said one prosecutor on Tuesday.

Data found on phones and computers found in some of the apartments the men lived in indicated that they acted in a rush, four days after the arrest in Brussels on March 18 of Abdeslam and Ayari.

Prosecutors said that on March 15 2016, the two men fled one of the flats they occupied in the Brussels district of Forest as their friend and mentor, Algerian national Mohamed Belkaid, opened fire on Belgian and French police who were conducting a joint raid.

The exchange of fire went on for several hours, helping the two men escape, and ended with a sniper killing Belkaid shortly after 6pm.

Abdeslam and Ayari climbed down a wall, ran through the kitchen of a house and past the terrified occupants. On their way, they stole a scarf that they used to hide their weapons in the building, prosecutors said.

Three days later, they were arrested. In April 2018, both were convicted of terror-related charges of attempted murder over the gunfight and jailed for 20 years by a Belgian court.

A French court in June sentenced Abdeslam to life in prison for his role in the November 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people.

In the flat, Belgian police found a home-made ISIS flag. The flag is displayed alongside other pieces of evidence in a glass box at the trial.

A street memorial in Brussels to the victims of the 2016 attacks. Reuters

Police also found ammunition and letters written by Abdeslam to his mother, sister and girlfriend saying he had sworn allegiance to ISIS.

In the bathroom, investigators discovered hair dye that the defendants allegedly used as part of disguises in the days preceding the attacks, the court heard.

Hidden in a cupboard, investigators discovered 13 fireworks, which they believe were to be used in home-made bombs.

Christmas lights had been stashed away under the kitchen sink. A prosecutor said that they were necessary for the plotters to make triggers for improvised explosive devices.

“The battery is too strong for the bulb. This creates a spark, which activates the bomb. This means that the terrorists used Christmas lights to detonate their bomb”, said the prosecutor.

Prosecutors said how the arrest on March 18 2020 of Ayari and Abdeslam pushed three of their friends, Belgian brothers Ibrahim and Khalid El Bekraoui, and Tunisian national Laachraoui, to launch four days later suicide attacks Brussels Airport and the Brussels metro.

Police were at the time searching for the El Bekraoui brothers.

Data extracted from a laptop found in the flat indicated that the cell had been scouting other locations, prosecutors said.

It indicated they had searched nuclear sites, the Belgian port of Antwerp, the French city of Lyon, the Belgian prime minister’s office in Brussels, as well as schools and kindergartens, the court heard.

Updated: December 08, 2022, 10:20 AM