Belgium jails Syria jihad recruiters for up to 20 years
A court handed down jail terms of up to 20 years Wednesday after a trial of 32 people charged with running one of Belgium's largest jihadist recruitment networks sending fighters to Syria, reports said.
Many of the defendants were tried in absentia, among them Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was sentenced to 20 years, the Belga news agency said.
Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan origin, remains at large after slipping through a police dragnet in connection with a separate case.
Investigators believe he was the brains behind an Islamist cell the authorities broke up in January, thwarting an alleged plot to mount attacks against the police.
Police shot and killed two suspected militants during the raid in Verviers, eastern Belgium, shortly after Islamist attacks in Paris left 17 people dead.
In February, Abaaoud, who was reported at one time to be in Greece, claimed responsibility for the plot against police officers and said he had joined the Islamic State group in Syria.
The court in Brussels sentenced the second main defendant Khalid Zerkani to 12 years in jail for encouraging people to go to Syria, Belga said.
Zerkani, who appeared in court, had consistently denied the charges.
Among others sentenced, Belga news agency said two defendants, a mother and her son, received eight years each.
The woman’s other two sons — one of whom is believed to have died in Syria while the other appeared in court — were jailed for 20 years given their previous criminal records, the court ruled.
The case attracted considerable attention amid fears that young Belgians are being enticed to the battlefields in Syria and Iraq to return home battle-hardened and dangerously radicalised.
Up to 400 are believed to have gone down that route, making Belgium the largest source of foreign jihadist fighters relative to its population.
In February, a court in the northern city of Antwerp sentenced the leader of the Sharia4Belgium group to 12 years on similar charges in one of the largest cases of its kind in Europe.
After the Verviers raid, the government deployed troops outside major institutions in Belgium including government buildings, EU premises and diplomatic missions.