Eight men were found guilty on Tuesday of having organized a series of bombings in Brussels in March 2016 that amounted to the deadliest terrorist assault in Belgium’s history.
The attacks — which were claimed by the same Islamic State cell that took responsibility for a string of terrorist attacks in Paris the previous year — killed 36 people, injured hundreds more and left Belgium and wider Europe with deep wounds and acute questions about the place of Islam in the continent’s largely secular societies.
The verdict capped an eight-month trial, the largest ever organized in Belgium, with testimony from almost 1,000 registered survivors, witnesses and experts. Eight of the men standing trial were charged with murder and attempted murder in a terrorist context, and one was charged with participation in the activities of a terrorist group.
The jury pronounced six men guilty of murder and attempted murder. Two were acquitted on the murder charges, but were found guilty of participating in the activities of a terrorist group. Two brothers, Ibrahim Farisi and Smail Farisi were acquitted.
The six found guilty of murder or attempted murder on Tuesday face sentences of up to life in prison. The verdict cannot be appealed.
Six of the 10 accused had already been handed various sentences in last year’s trial in Paris over the terrorist attacks in the French capital.
What happened in the attacks?
Three homemade bombs packed with nails were detonated in Brussels on March 22, 2016, killing 32 people from eight countries and wounding 340 others.
Two of the bombs exploded in the busy departure hall of Brussels Airport, with a third bomb later found unexploded on the airport premises. Just over an hour later, another bomb struck in the subway station of Maelbeek, an area of Brussels that is home to European Union institutions.
Three suicide bombers, identified as Najim Laachraoui, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui and Khalid el-Bakraoui, were killed by the detonations.
The bombings sent shock waves across Belgium and prompted a painful process of soul-searching in the multicultural and multiethnic nation.
The Belgian security services came under scrutiny for not preventing the violence. Many of the accused were born and raised in the country, and critics denounced the government for failing to successfully integrate Muslims into Belgian society.
What happened during the proceedings?
The trial, which took place in the former headquarters of NATO, is estimated to have cost at least 35 million euros, about $39 million. Although it held the promise of reckoning for a grieving society, it was marred by delays and interruptions.
The proceedings were held up for two months over a dispute about glass boxes that were supposed to hold the accused as they testified. The judges ordered that the cubicles be rebuilt after defense lawyers argued that the structures deprived their clients of dignity.
During the trial, defendants frequently complained of mistreatment by the police and prison guards, including verbal abuse and what they described as a disproportionate number of strip searches.
Most of the accused denied having participated in the attacks, and one refused to speak at the trial.
Still, the testimony, much of which included painful details, brought a sense of relief to many who were injured or whose loved ones were killed.
“It took a long time, but it was important that the victims could speak out,” Phillipe Vandenberghe, 53, a computer scientist who was working at the airport when the attacks occurred, said in an interview. “We found out the details from the police and the prosecutors. We understood many things.”
Who are the accused?
Ten men of different nationalities stood trial over the attacks, including Salah Abdeslam, the only Paris attacker who is still alive. Mr. Abdeslam, who was accused of helping to plan the Brussels bombings, has already been sentenced to life in prison over the Paris attacks; the courts are yet to determine where he will serve his sentences.
Eight of the men were accused of murder and attempted murder in a terrorist context and of participation in the activities of a terrorist group. Among them were Mohamed Abrini, who had been at Brussels Airport earlier in March 2016 and abandoned a suitcase of explosives without detonating it; and Osama Krayen, a Swede who was accused of planning to participate in the subway bombings.
One of those defendants, Oussama Attar, was tried in absentia. He was pronounced dead by the Islamic State in November 2017, though his death has never been confirmed.
Smail Farisi, was charged solely with participation in the activities of a terrorist group. The prosecution had asked for a full acquittal, Ibrahim Farisi and that request was granted.
How was the verdict decided?
After seven months of testimony from victims, experts and defendants, the 12 jury members and 15 alternates deliberated for 18 days in a guarded location in a Brussels hotel, where they were forbidden to have contact with the outside world.
During that time, they formulated answers and explanations to nearly 300 questions drafted by the presiding judge, Laurence Massart, about the guilt or innocence of each of the defendants and about the toll of the attacks.