A Belgian court has found the leader of the now disbanded group Sharia4Belgium guilty of sending men to fight in Syria. Fouad Belkacem was one of 46 standing trial in Antwerp accused of encouraging young Muslims to join jihadi groups, Sky News reports.
After the verdict, public prosecutor Ann Fransen told reporters: “Belkacem’s words can only be interpreted as a call to violence and jihad.”
The Moroccan-born car mechanic was sentenced to twelve years in prison on top of the two he is already serving for inciting hatred against non-Muslims.
He smiled as he was led into the court in handcuffs, joined by seven of the others who also stood accused.
The remainder of the 46 who were on trial in Antwerp were believed to be fighting in Syria or have died in the conflict. But Belkacem himself has never been to the war torn country which is in the grip of the fundamentalist Islamic State.
He is known for his street sermons and was a leading figure in brainwashing young men: the aim of his group was to establish Sharia Law in Belgium, a sentiment he expressed in a series of Youtube videos.
A key prosecution witness was 20-year-old Jejoen Bontinck, who was also charged with belonging to Sharia4Belgium. Belkacem was accused of radicalising the young man who was later given a 40-month suspended sentence on account of his assistance with securing the prosecution of the ring leader and other key figures.
Bontinck claimed he had travelled to Syria as an aid worker to help victims of the fighting but his father Dimitri, who travelled to the country to bring his son home, said he knew he was being indoctrinated.
The other members of the group were sentenced to between three and five years in prison, with some of the sentences being suspended.
On conviction, Judge Luc Potargent said: “Belkacem is responsible for the radicalisation of young men to prepare them for Salafist combat, which has at its core no place for democratic values.
“Sharia4Belgium recruited these young men for armed combat and organised their departure for Syria.”
An estimated 350 Belgian nationals have left for Syria, meaning the country has more radicalised jihadi fighters per head of population than any other European country.
Only last month the country was on high alert after a plot to kill the police was uncovered last month. Three men died as law enforcers conducted morning raids on a house in Verviers.