Antwerp (Belgium) (AFP) - A Belgian court sentenced the leader of an Islamist group that sent jihadist fighters to Syria to a 12-year jail term on Wednesday and imprisoned several other members in one of the largest cases of its kind in Europe.
Fouad Belkacem, 32, the chief of the Sharia4Belgium group, was convicted by a court in the northern port city of Antwerp of radicalising, recruiting and dispatching young men to fight holy war.
Forty-six members of the group originally faced charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation, but only eight were actually present during the five-month trial, with one deemed medically unfit to stand trial.
The rest were believed to be either still in Syria, or dead.
Sharia4Belgium had close ties to Anjem Choudary, the British radical preacher, and lifted much of its rhetoric from the banned group Islam4UK, which he founded. Mr Choudary described him as “a dear friend of mine” in comments to The Times last November. The British preacher made several visits to speak to Sharia4Belgium members which were filmed and posted on the internet. His tweets in support of the men jailed are here.
If I remember correctly Choudary is himself subject to a suspended sentence from a Belgian court.
Sharia4Belgium rose to prominence in 2010 after a protest against a proposed ban on wearing the full-face Islamic burqa in public.
It found fertile ground for recruitment in Antwerp, Belgium's second biggest city, which has a large Muslim community, mainly from Turkey and Morocco, as well as one of Europe's biggest Jewish Orthodox communities.
Belgium remains on high alert following last month's terror major operation, which authorities said had smashed a cell aiming to kill police officers in public streets and at police stations.
Two suspected militants were shot dead in a raid in the eastern city of Verviers.
Defence lawyers argued that Sharia- 4Belgium was merely an organisation that aimed to provoke public opinion, like the Russian rock group Pussy Riot.
Judge Luc Potargent said that it was a terrorist group that had groomed dozens of young men. “Sharia4Belgium recruited these young men for armed combat and organised their departure for Syria,” he said. Sharia4Belgium was credited with helping to turn Belgium into Europe’s most concentrated source of jihadist recruits for Syria.