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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK
Al-Qaeda plotters sentenced
Nizar Trabelsi. Picture: February 2002
Trabelsi said he had met Bin Laden
A man recruited as an al-Qaeda suicide bomber has been jailed for 10 years for his part in a plot to blow up a military base housing US soldiers.

The man - Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian who used to play professional football in Germany - was among 23 suspected militants being tried in Belgium.

A second Tunisian - Tarek Maroufi - was sentenced to six years in prison for organising the recruitment of al-Qaeda volunteers in Europe.

Another 16 suspects - who prosecutors said were part of a "spider's web" of radicals - received shorter sentences for a series of lesser offences, while five defendants were acquitted.

Terrorism has destroyed the liberty and freedom of individuals. These acts must be sanctioned most severely
Judge Claire Degryse

Correspondents say the relatively modest prison terms reflect the fact that Belgium has no specific anti-terrorism laws.

Trabelsi was charged with attempting to destroy public property, illegal arms possession and membership in a private militia.

The BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner says the case is being closely watched by prosecutors all over Europe, and the verdicts will have implications far beyond the Brussels courtroom.

Bomb plot

"Terrorism has destroyed the liberty and freedom of individuals, Judge Claire de Gryse said. "These acts must be sanctioned most severely."

The court heard that Trabelsi, 33, met al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden several times in Afghanistan and asked to become a suicide bomber.

Armed policeman
There was heavy security at the courthouse
He says he was ordered to go to Belgium, pack a bomb into a lorry and blow it up - with him at the wheel - next to the canteen of the Kleine Brogel military base about 100 miles from Brussels.

But Trabelsi was arrested in Brussels two days after the 11 September, 2001 attacks on the United States.

"Everything points to the fact that on the evening before his arrest, he was determined to carry out this project," the judge said in passing sentence at the heavily guarded Brussels Criminal Court.

Defence attorney Yves de Quyve said the court had ignored the remorse Trabelsi had shown during the trial and had made an example of him after the US terror attacks.

Forgery and conspiracy

Tarek Maaroufi, for his part, was accused of involvement in a fake passport ring linked to the 9 September 2001 killing of anti-Taleban Afghan military commander Ahmad Shah Masood.

Masood died at the hands of two suicide bombers allegedly travelling on false Belgian passports.

The other suspects, who are all of North African origin, faced a range of charges including forgery, conspiracy to commit a crime, handling stolen goods or membership of a private militia.

Most of the defendants claimed innocence and said some of their contacts were maintained out of a sense of international religious brotherhood, not an attempt to commit crime or terrorism.

The Belgian authorities decided to combine the bomb plot and al-Qaeda recruitment cases in one huge anti-terrorism trial - the country's biggest ever.

The trial was held under tight security. Riot police were on standby outside the court, but there were no protests or demonstrations.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Stephen Sackur
"The climax of a two year investigation"




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