ANTWERP, Belgium (AP) — A radical Muslim organization in Belgium was a terror group that brainwashed youngsters and sent them to fight in Syria, prosecutors said Monday as a trial started for dozens of its alleged leaders and members.
Only eight of the 46 suspected members of the Sharia4Belgium group were present for the trial’s opening, and a ninth appeared after the lunch break. Many others are believed to be fighting in Syria or to have died in the country’s civil war.
The group’s alleged leader, Fouad Belkacem, who is in custody, was led, handcuffed, into court by armed guards. He listened in silence to prosecutor Ann Fransen as she said that leading a terror organization has a maximum sentence of 15 to 20 years.
The case, one of the biggest-ever terror trials in Belgium, centers on Sharia4Belgium and its efforts to indoctrinate young Muslims through social media and readings, and send them to Syria to fight.
The prosecutor cited parents of some of the young Belgian jihadists as saying their children would never have thought of fighting overseas if they had not been brainwashed by Sharia4Belgium.
As the hearing closed, one distraught mother, whose son is a suspected Sharia4Belgium member believed to be in Syria, was led from the court after pointing at the suspects and screaming, “you have made my life a living hell!”
Quoting from tapped phone conversations and statements by one of the suspects, who will be a key prosecution witness, Fransen said the Belgians were deeply entwined with the al-Qaida-inspired Sunni Muslim groups fighting in Syria.
Authorities fear those traveling to Syria to fight will return home battle-hardened and trained to carry out terrorist attacks in Belgium.
Similar concerns have been expressed across Europe, and Fransen said Sharia4Belgium had links with like-minded groups in Britain, the Netherlands, France and Germany.
Underscoring the spread of jihadi ideology, judges in two separate Dutch courts ruled on Monday that two men suspected of fighting in Syria or recruiting fighters for Syria must remain in jail, Dutch broadcaster NOS reported.
The group Sharia4Belgium was disbanded nearly two years ago. Prosecutors now want to prove it was a terror organization.
Defense lawyers for the suspects who are in court will make their arguments at a later hearing.