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Brussels terror attacks: Public jury praised as a model for future trials

22:23 01/08/2023

In what has been called “the trial of the century”, the long-awaited verdict from the 22 March 2016 Brussels terror attack trials was announced - delivered by a public jury rather than legal experts.

There were doubts initially that the general public would have the expertise and tenacity to do the work, along with senior magistrates and judges, and there were procedural difficulties when the trial began.

But now professionals, the general public and attack victims have all praised the government’s decision to allow a public jury, instead of, as in Paris for the 13 November 2015 bombings, choosing magistrates to rule on the bombing’s perpetrators.

“An important page has been written in the judicial history of our country,” said federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw. “There is still debate about sentences, but I hope those who have suffered so much from what happened can find the support and care they need to rebuild their lives.”

He added: “The jurors have accomplished a colossal task. I hope that everyone is aware of the scale of their sacrifice and that they will have the support they need.”

Indeed, the bombings led to the most protracted legal proceedings that Belgium has ever known. The trial started on 6 December and finished a full seven months later, on 6 July.

There followed 19 days of near confinement for the jury in a hotel in a secret location. Here the 12 jurors and the judges deliberated on some 287 questions. During this time, they were not allowed any contact with relatives – with the telephone, internet and television all banned.

Their sacrifice paid off, according to the Belgian press. For L’Avenir, while the popular jury could have got out of serving by producing bogus medical certificates, “the last 18 days have showed that this jury was of high quality, conscientious and concerned about the fate of the 10 defendants and about the justice that they must render to the victims and to society”.

Similarly, La Libre Belgique praised “the right choice” of Belgium, saying that the special court “offered the people and not professional magistrates the right and duty to judge those who attack our society and European values. This allows the victims and their loved ones to testify, see the interest and emotion in the eyes of the jurors, and to feel listened to and heard.”

Le Soir summed up that it was a “high-ranking trial that does justice to justice” - and one that will remain as a model of the genre.

Victims, including Pierre Bastin, whose child died in the Maelbeek bombing, also paid tribute to the jury.

“It’s reassuring, but I trusted them from the start,” he said. “With their diligence and knowledge of the file, I think they had everything they needed to weigh up the pros and cons in minute detail.”

Pierre-Yves Desaive, a survivor of the Brussels Airport bombings, said he sent the jury “all my gratitude”, insisted that while it was a citizen’s duty to serve, "no citizen is ready to bear such a burden".

“And I am not just speaking about the fact of being cut from family and professional life for seven months,” he said. “What they saw and heard will affect them terribly. They have done their work for society, and now it’s society that must help them.”

Desaive also noted that it was a mark of the talented, motivated jury, that not everyone on trial was convicted.

“It must be emphasised that the public is not always seeking to send people behind bars for the sake of it. This is a good lesson in justice.”

Indeed, the Farisi brothers, Ibrahim and Smail, were finally cleared of all charges, with Ibrahim’s lawyer Xavier Carrette also lauding the “extraordinary jurors” for the result.

The court found that Mohamed Abrini, Osama Krayem, Salah Abdeslam, Ali El Haddad Asufi, Bilal El Makhoukhi, Sofien Ayari and Hervé Bayingana Muhirwar – as well as the ringleader Oussama Atar, presumed to have died in Syria – were guilty of belonging to a terrorist group.

All but Ayari and Muhirwar were also convicted of murder or attempted murder and will face sentencing next month, with the hearing scheduled to start on 4 September.

The bombings at Brussels Zavantem airport and at Maelbeek metro station killed 35 people - including three who died due to their injuries and trauma much later - and left more than 300 people severely injured.

Written by Liz Newmark