Brussels attacks judge orders removal of defendant "cages"

·2-min read
Preliminary hearing ahead of 2016 Brussels attacks trial

By Philip Blenkinsop

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Nine men accused of participating in the 2016 Brussels bombings that killed 32 people cannot be put on trial in glass boxes their lawyers have likened to animal cages, a judge ruled on Friday.

The special court for one of Belgium's largest trials features a series of individual glass compartments into which nine of the accused were placed on the opening day on Monday.

Presiding judge Laurence Massart ordered that an alternative be found, such as a larger space with clear openings for lawyers to speak to defendants and that this work be complete by Oct. 10.

That is the date set for jury selection with the trial proper to begin on Oct. 13 and expected to last six to eight months.

Massart accepted some of the arguments made by defence lawyers, who contended that they could not talk privately to clients and that observers would tend to see the confined defendants as guilty.

Some lawyers said the accused could boycott proceedings if the glass boxes remained, undermining the trial and the hopes of victims groups to understand the events of March 22, 2016, when three Islamist suicide bombers struck Brussels' airport and metro.

"This decisions opens the door to us having a serene trial," Michel Bouchat, lawyer of Salah Abdeslam, told reporters.

Abdeslam, the main suspect in the French trial, is among nine defendants prosecutors say were key parts of the attack plot or who provided support. A 10th man accused is presumed killed in Syria.

Lawyers for victims, including some 340 people injured, welcomed Friday's decision, stressing the judge had ordered changes principally for practical reasons, rather than accepting arguments that the accused were being treated inhumanely.

"We accept this," said Maryse Alie, lawyer for a group of some 500 victims. "It will allow access to the accused and answers to the questions of victims."

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Andrea Ricci)