Scenic Bruges, also home to 'Belgium's Guantanamo'

20th March 2016, Comments 0 comments

A stone's throw from its picture-postcard canals and medieval buildings, the scenic city of Bruges has an altogether darker secret: one of Belgium's largest and most high-security jails, housing some of its most-wanted supects.

The Bruges Penitentiary Complex on Saturday received the tourist town's latest high-profile "guest" when Paris terror attack suspect Salah Abdeslam arrived at the modern facility, following his dramatic arrest in a Brussels suburb a day before.

"When I heard a helicopter yesterday (Saturday) I thought 'that is it, Salah has arrived'," said Carine, who has lived 50 metres (yards) away from the prison for the last three decades.

Carine, who did not give her last name, told AFP she followed the hunt for Europe's most wanted suspect blow-by-blow on television.

"There are already two or three terror suspects here," she said, and every time "there is a bit of anxiety" when a new one arrives.

"Everybody knows the prison is here. The authorities should be a bit more discreet about it," said Carine, whose mind wondered back to a spectacular escape in July 2009.

That day there was the sound of a helicopter too, except that it had come to spring three criminals from jail including Ashraf Sekkaki, described as a "dyed-in-the-wool psychopath" and one of Belgium's most dangerous criminals.

A year earlier, Sekakki himself denounced the maximum security prison as "Belgium's Guantanamo" -- referring to the notorious US prison in Cuba which houses suspected war criminals.

The three fugitives were arrested three weeks later in Morocco.

Today, Abdeslam is in solitary confinement in the same wing that also has Mehdi Nemmouche, who carried out a fatal attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014.

Two men who helped Abdeslam flee Paris after last year's November 13 attacks in Paris, in which 130 people died, are also held at the prison.

- 'Venice of the North' -

Located on the outskirts of a city that draws hordes of tourists year-round to its historic market square, the large brick complex is surrounded by moats and high fences.

"The biggest terrorists are here," said Peter Smet, who adds "in Bruges there aren't many factories and not much work."

"Apart from tourism and the harbour, there's the prison. A lot of people work there," said Smet, an accountant.

On the other side of the fence -- inside the prison -- Abdeslam's arrival has also aroused great interest.

"They are talking about it, even though they can't see it," Jenifer, who had just visited her husband in the prison told AFP.

Four kilometres away on Bruge's Great Market square, tourists share an order of traditional Belgian fries, climb into waiting carriages for tours or take a romantic stroll in the city, known as the "Venice of the North".

"We've heard of it, but it's not really a concern," said Nicola, a tourist from Britain.

"We saw the border controls and we see things are going on, but that doesn't mean we should stop living," added Felix Gaulier, who came with a group of friends from Lille.

"But it is a bit strange, this discrepancy between the fact that we're having a party and that there are also 'other kinds of people here'."


© 2016 AFP

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