Belgium’s homegrown terrorist leader, Fouad Belkacem, was sentenced to a 12-year jail term on Wednesday along with 45 members of the Sharia4Belgium organization. The organization was active between 2010 and 2012 with the goal of creating an Islamic state in Belgium. After it was dissolved, many of its members went to Syria to aid in the fighting there.
Most of the suspects did not appear at the trial, which began in Antwerp last September. They are believed to be fighting in Syria or presumed dead. One suspect was declared unfit to stand trial. Another, 19-year-old Jejoen Bontinck, whose story made headlines when his father went to Syria to bring him home, became a key witness for the prosecution. He received a suspended sentence of 40 months.
Dimitri Bontinck, Jejoen’s father, told reporters that he was pleased that his son received only the suspended sentence. He also warned that the trial could cause more unrest in Belgium and all over Europe. The case in Antwerp is not the only terrorism case that has been ongoing for the past few months. A case opened on Wednesday in Sarajevo of a man suspected of recruiting for a terrorist organization. In Kosovo, four suspects pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges and a fifth pleaded guilty.
Belkacem’s defense team argued that Sharia4Belgium only intended to provoke opinion and should not be considered a terrorist organization. However, the judge disagreed. In his ruling, Judge Luc Potargent said that although Belkacem never went to Syria, he is responsible for inciting others to travel to the Middle East to fight with a terrorist organization. He said that “Salafist combat… has at its core no place for democratic values.” The 12-year jail term that the judge passed on the leader of Belgium’s most prominent terrorist organization cements exactly how seriously European officials are taking the threat of terrorism.
The verdict was expected last month, but was postponed after the attacks in Paris. It now comes just before the European Parliament is set to discuss possible counter-terrorism measures. These include attempting to remove content on the internet which promotes Islamic extremism as well as an amendment to the Schengen Borders Code to allow less freedom of movement throughout Europe of people involved in Belkacem’s organization and others like it.
Belkacem found his way into Islamic militancy after a long criminal record including theft and assault. The prosecution claims that a radical Muslim cleric in London, Anjem Choudary, helped him to develop Sharia4Belgium. Choudary backed up these statements. After the verdict, he stated that he was only helping Belkacem carry out his Islamic duty. He said that he is proud of Belkacem and all the members of his organization.
Sharia4Belgium has done more to support the Islamist cause in Syria relative to Belgium’s population than any other organization. A Belgian researcher estimates that between 350 and 450 citizens had traveled to Syria by the end of last year, and 70 had already returned home.
The 12-year jail sentence given to the leader of Belgium’s terrorist organization was not the longest sentence given on Wednesday. The court would not drop charges against the 37 defendants who were not at the trial, despite the fact that some of them are presumed dead. The court reminded the Belgian media that Islamist militants have been known to fake their deaths and resurface later to avoid prosecution. The absent defendants were sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
By Kirstin Pinto