(AP) – Alleged al-Qaida Sympathizers Convicted BRUSSELS, Belgium – A court convicted 18 Muslims including a soccer pro arrested after the Sept. 11 attacks for planning to blow up a base believed to hold U.S. nuclear weapons _ and sentenced them Tuesday to up to 10 years in prison for involvement in a European terror ring recruiting for al-Qaida and the Taliban.
One defendant was sentenced to six years for aiding the Sept. 9, 2001, assassination of Ahmed Shah Massood, the Afghan military commander who led opposition to the Taliban militia that ruled his country at the time. The verdict was the latest in a slew of cases resulting from a sweep of suspected Islamic militants around Europe after the attacks on New York and Washington.
European nations have been giving more powers to police, prosecutors and judges to root out suspects, and have beefed up security measures at airports and seaports. But Tuesday’s sentencing _ the conclusion of Belgium’s biggest terrorism trial ever _ comes while the government is still considering new legislation with tougher penalties. Such legislation has been in the works for months. “To get the definition of terrorism into the law books … this will be finalized by the end of the year,” said Justice Ministry spokeswoman Saar Vanderplatsen.
Federal prosecutors charged the group had formed a “spider’s web” of Islamic radicals plotting attacks and recruiting fighters in Europe for al-Qaida and the now-deposed Taliban in Afghanistan.
“Terrorism has destroyed the liberty and freedom of individuals,” Judge Claire de Gryse said. “These acts must be sanctioned most severely.” Nizar Trabelsi, a 33-year-old Tunisian who played soccer for several German teams, was sentenced to the maximum 10 years. He admitted planning to drive a car bomb into the canteen at Kleine Brogel, a Belgian air base where U.S. nuclear weapons are believed to be stored. Trabelsi testified that he intended kill American soldiers, not to detonate nuclear warheads. About 100 American military personnel are stationed at the base.
Another Tunisian-born defendant, Tarek Maaroufi, 37, was convicted of involvement in the assassination of Massood, the anti-Taliban military commander. Sixteen others were convicted of lesser crimes and received sentences ranging from two to five years. Five defendants were acquitted for insufficient evidence. None of the defendants was allowed to address the court during the three-hour session. Trabelsi was stone-faced as the sentences were read. Trabelsi, who says he met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and asked to become a suicide bomber, was arrested in Brussels on Sept. 13, 2001. Police later discovered the raw materials for a huge bomb in the back of a Brussels restaurant. The judge said phone and credit card records introduced as evidence showed Trabelsi’s links with terrorist cells in other parts of Europe. “While bin Laden was preparing for attacks on the United States, Trabelsi with others were preparing and looking for explosives in Europe,” she concluded.
Defense lawyers called the sentence “overly severe” given Trabelsi’s cooperation with investigators and the remorse he had shown during the trial. “They made an example of Mr. Trabelsi after the Sept. 11 attacks,” lawyer Yves de Quevy said, adding an appeal was possible. Trabelsi came to Europe in 1989 for a tryout with the German first-division team Fortuna Duesseldorf. The 19-year-old forward got a contract but never made it off the reserve list and was soon let go. Over the next few years he bounced from team to team in the minor leagues, acquiring a cocaine habit and lengthy criminal record.
Eventually, he made his way to al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan, where trial evidence showed he placed himself on a “list of martyrs” ready to commit suicide attacks. Spanish police say Trabelsi was in Spain in August 2001 and may have met there with Mohamed Atta, one of the Sept. 11 hijackers. They also have tied Trabelsi to an Algerian Islamic insurgent group allegedly financed by bin Laden. The judge said evidence presented showed Trabelsi also had been in contact with Richard C. Reid, a British citizen who tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight with explosives in his shoes and was sentenced this year in Boston to life in prison. The trial was held under extreme security precautions at the ornate Justice Palace in the center of Brussels. All the defendants entered the courtroom handcuffed to police officers, while people entering public galleries had to go through metal detectors.
Riot police were on standby outside but there were no protests or demonstrations. Belgium isn’t the only European nation to have cracked down on suspected Islamic militants after the Sept. 11 attacks. Last year, an Italian court convicted seven Tunisians for helping al-Qaida recruits get fake documents. Among those convicted was Essid Sami Ben Khemais, the alleged logistics head of bin Laden’s terror operations in Europe.
A German court in February convicted Mounir el Motassadeq of being part of the al-Qaida cell that helped carry out the Sept. 11 attacks, while a friend and fellow Moroccan, Abdelghani Mzoudi, is on trial now in Hamburg on similar charges. Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon last week announced the indictment of 35 suspected al-Qaida supporters and members, including bin Laden himself. Not all such cases have panned out, however.
In the Netherlands, a court acquitted 12 Middle Eastern men of terrorism-related charges in June, ruling that prosecutors relied on uncorroborated intelligence to accuse them of recruiting young Muslims for suicide attacks. Four Algerians who prosecutors said trained in Afghan terror camps were convicted last March in Germany of a foiled plot to bomb a Christmas market in Strasbourg, France, but the trial failed to establish solid links to al-Qaida.