Welcome to the fifteenth edition of the V-Europe newsletter. This week’s newsletter is written by Nicolas Estienne, a lawyer for many civil parties during this trial as a member of V-Europe’s defence team.
During the fifteenth week of the trial, victims and bereaved families continued to give evidence. The trial only sat on Monday 20th March and Tuesday 21st March.
On Wednesday 22nd March, the hearings were suspended to allow for reflection and to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the attacks. The hearings were also suspended on Thursday 23rd March due to a European summit.
The president of the court showed a lot of empathy towards those giving evidence and demonstrated great listening skills. The jurors, of which there are 31, attentively followed each hearing with respect and emotion.
All of the accused were present during the hearings on 20th and 21st March.
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Table of contents
- Monday 20 March - Tuesday 21 March: testimonies of civil parties
Monday 20 March: testimonies civil parties
The hearing started with the testimony of Ms Charlotte SUTCLIFFE, widow of Mr David DIXON, who died at Maelbeek, and mother of their son Henry, who was not yet 7 years old at the time of his father's death.
Charlotte began by painting a loving portrait of David (whose nickname was Did), explaining his education and professional background, talking about his passion for music, highlighting his sense of humour and concern for others, while also emphasizing that he was not materialistic ("All he wanted was a good sound system and tons of records").
Charlotte also described her relationship with David and the arrival of their son Henry in their household in 2009, as well as their life in Brussels, where they had moved to and David worked as a computer engineer for Euroclear.
Charlotte stated that "The bomb at Maelbeek destroyed not only a train carriage, but also our lives." She mentioned that she had exchanged text messages with David around 8:45 am, shortly before the attack.
Charlotte emphasized the extreme anxiety she experienced between the announcement of the explosion at Maelbeek station and the confirmation of David's death, as well as the difficulties she had in telling her son the news. Henry was informed of the death on Friday 25th March "and his world exploded".
Charlotte lamented the lack of support she received from Belgium, which led her to decide to return to the United Kingdom a few months after David's death. This has been a source of suffering for Henry, who lost his home, friends and school.
In Belgium, doctors had already diagnosed autism in Henry after the death of his father. In November 2016, the diagnosis of Asperger's was confirmed in the UK. Charlotte believes that her child's autism is not directly related to the terrorist attack. However, she believes that the trauma of David's death still causes anxiety that significantly complicates Henry's life and schooling.
Charlotte had a difficult time with the administrative procedures and evaluations that had to be carried out for her to receive compensation, an experience that was dehumanizing for her: "It took me 5 years to complete this procedure and the mental burden made me feel very bad." Charlotte now suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, which doctors directly link to the trauma of the attacks.
At the end of her testimony, she indicated that the result of the attacks is the opposite of what the terrorists would have wanted: instead of dividing, they brought victims closer and created human relationships and love among them.
"Despite my current state, I am much stronger today than I ever thought I could be."
The morning continued with the testimony of Ms Rita GERARD, Ms Sarah ESMAEL FAZAL and Mr Jonathan SELEMANI, who are respectively the mother, sister and partner of Sabrina ESMAEL FAZAL, who died at Maelbeek at the age of 24.
Mr SELEMANI explained that he had been Sabrina's partner for 8 years and recounted how they met, as well as the birth of their son Heyden who was only a few months old at the time of his mother's death.
As for Ms GERARD, she painted a beautiful portrait of her daughter, recalling in particular that Sabrina was only 21 years old and still lived with her when she learned of her pregnancy.
Ms GERARD emphasized the long wait that had to be endured to learn of her daughter's death: "Three days without any news and no one knew where Sabrina was."
According to her, since Sabrina's death, the whole family has been "adrift", despite the Christian faith that animates them. Speaking of her son Jérémy, Sabrina's brother, she explained: "He sometimes goes to the cemetery, he lies on his sister's grave to hug her. His only refuge is the cold stone where Sabrina rests."
Ms GERARD also addressed the defendants: "How can one, in the name of a religion, take the lives of innocent people? What made them tip into absolute horror?"
Sarah ESMAEL FAZAL stated that she is now the same age as her sister Sabrina was at the time of her death. She was in the playground when she was informed that a bomb had exploded in the metro.
Immediately, she felt like her heart was being ripped out. Deep down, she already knew she would never see her sister again. Since then, she has seen ‘her mother's light extinguished‘ and describes with emotion the state of her mother and the sufferings she has been through.
Sarah has, nevertheless, regained a taste for life and wants to make her sister Sabrina proud, despite the scars she bears from her disappearance.
In the late morning, Virginie VALENTIN was called to the witness stand. Virginie was in the second car that exploded, and she describes 22 March 2016, as "a date I write in capital letters".
She used to always stand in the second carriage when she boarded the metro at Hermann Debroux station. "That was my first mistake". According to her, her second mistake was being a little early that day to go to work.
Virginie explained that just before the explosion, there was no particular commotion in the metro, and she was absorbed in her mobile phone, looking for information on the explosions that had occurred a little earlier at Zaventem airport.
The metro stopped at Maelbeek station and then started again: "One, two, boom!" (one, two for the time it took the metro to enter the tunnel, then boom! for the deafening sound of the explosion). At that moment, Virginie thought, "I think I'm going to die, but I don't want to die. I feel like I'm out of my body."
She then explains how she managed to get out of the car and the metro station with other people while still feeling guilty about it: "I realize they're trailing behind, but I can't turn back. My body went into automatic mode, my brain into survival mode. It's consumed by survival."
She spoke about her serious injuries, including a cervical fracture and severe hearing damage: "I don't understand how it's possible that I came out alive. The body is a war machine." Regarding her specific hearing-related symptoms, she stated: "Tinnitus, hyperacusis, hearing loss: the winning trio to isolate you."
Virginie also expressed her concern about the future: "How will this body age?" Since she returned to work, Virginie no longer takes the metro unless she has no other choice, and she says, "When the metro passes through Maelbeek, my body cries."
She also stated that her anger is now directed towards the state "who failed three times, first for not preventing the Zaventem attack, then for not stopping the metro, and finally for delivering the victims to the insurers."
In the early afternoon, the Court heard the testimony of Mr Bernard HECHT, the father of Léopold HECHT, who died at the age of 20 as a result of the attack that occurred at the Maelbeek metro station while he was on his way to the library of Saint-Louis University where he was a brilliant law student.
Before taking the metro, his mother had heard that there had been a double explosion at Zaventem airport and had offered to drive Léopold to the university by car. Léopold refused, saying that the terrorists would have won if they gave in to fear.
Mr HECHT explained that his son was seriously injured and died in the hospital a few hours later: "We took turns at his bedside, we were able to talk to him. We are convinced that he heard our words. Sometime after midnight, we were told it was over and we agreed without hesitation to donate his organs."
For Bernard HECHT, it is important to "keep a little humanity in the darkness that surrounds us."
At the end of his testimony, Bernard HECHT addressed the defendants as follows: "You are at a crossroads where a choice must be made. You can choose to continue down the path of hatred or seek humanity within yourselves. If you are courageous and choose to embark on the path of reconciliation, you will find me on your way."
The Court then heard the testimony of Mr Hans VAN DER BIESEN, director of the THON Hotel, which served as an improvised medical post for many victims of Maelbeek.
He explained that he and the hotel staff first tried to enter the metro station to provide assistance, but the smoke was too strong. They then alerted the emergency services, while blocking a traffic lane on Rue de la Loi so that they could arrive as quickly as possible.
He and his staff then evacuated the furniture on the ground floor of the hotel, so that the Red Cross could set up its triage point. Between 40 and 50 injured people were received at the hotel, most of whom were able to leave the station on their own.
They put sheets on the windows to prevent passers-by from seeing the victims. They also allowed people to call their loved ones with the hotel's landline phone.
Mr VAN DER BIESEN explained that psychological sessions were organised for his staff and the decision was made to keep the hotel open so that employees could see each other and discuss the trauma caused by the attack.
The tenth juror asked a question to the witness about the psychological state of his team. Mr. VAN DER BIESEN replied that everyone had reacted differently, some employees needing longer psychological follow-up than others.
The day ended with the testimony of Ms Ghita BERRAHO and Ms Amina LAFQUIRI, respectively the mother and sister of Loubna LAFQUIRI, who died in Maelbeek at the age of 34 and was a mother of three children.
Loubna had sent a message to her sister Amina three minutes before her death to warn her family, who were in Morocco and were supposed to return soon to Belgium: "It has exploded in Zaventem, be careful!"
When the family learned of the explosion in Maelbeek, they did not immediately think that Loubna could be in the metro. But Loubna could not be reached.
Being in Morocco, Ms BERRAHO and her daughter Amina could not personally search for Loubna to try to locate her in a hospital, which was a source of great concern.
As time passed, the grip of despair tightened more and more. They really hoped until the last second that Loubna was still alive, until the official announcement of her death.
Like other victims, Loubna's mother emphasized that the bomb did not only explode in Maelbeek, but also and above all directly at their home, in their house, their sanctuary.
She also said, "We were a family full of laughter and joy of life. We still had so many projects to accomplish, Loubna and I. Since then, depression has never left us. We were all ambitious, everything collapsed."
Loubna's sister indicated that she did not have the magnanimity to forgive the terrorists. She is still angry that they dared to break their lives. She said to them, "What dignity are they talking about? What do these searches represent compared to the murders they committed? We want compensation and justice to be done."
Tuesday 21 March: testimonies of civil parties
At the beginning of the hearing, the Court heard from Mr Thibault JONCKHEERE and Ms Vanessa DECAUX.
Mr JONCKHEERE, an employee of STIB, was present in the second car that exploded (he was sitting diagonally 2.75 meters away from the suicide bomber).
He declared, "I will never forgive those who put my children's lives in danger. I am plunged into darkness, my ears feel disconnected. I don't know if I am dead or alive. Then I feel an enormous headache which makes me realize that I am alive. I feel like I'm on the -3rd floor of a 25-story building that collapsed on me. Of all the riches of the French language, there are no words to describe the state of car 2 at that time. Car 2 was, for me, a mixture of Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
He describes having made the most difficult decision of his life by leaving the train carriage. He still regrets it today as he could have helped more people.
Once he got out of the metro station, he was transferred in a wheelchair to the THON hotel and then operated at Brugmann Hospital.
In the evening, when everyone had left, he crawled on the floor and dragged himself to the bathroom to look at himself. He was deeply shocked when he saw his face disfigured by burns.
According to Thibault: "I received a lot of solidarity but not from insurance companies. They contribute to making it more difficult for me to get back on my feet. If for him (referring to the insurance doctor), it's not that serious, I'm willing to exchange my life with this doctor, let him take my life since March 22, 2016. As I speak to you, I still can't sleep at night, I have war nightmares. I've had a headache and tinnitus for 7 years. The pain affects my mood. It took my joy, my jokes."
He points out that the blast's impact on the brain has been documented from American studies, but Belgian insurance experts ignore these studies. He further emphasized, "I was just passing by. I took this hate right in the face."
Today, he still works for STIB but in a different role.
Ms Vanessa DECAUX the former partner of Mr. JONCKHEERE (they separated after the attacks).
She talked about the significant changes in her former partner since the attack. First, the physical changes (he was burned, disfigured), then the inner changes (headaches, shattered life, tinnitus).
The morning continued with the very emotional testimony of Ms Anna PANASEWICZ, who is the daughter of Ms Janina GRAZYNA PANASEWICZ, who died at Maelbeek.
She described her mother as a happy person, always in a good mood, always there for her daughter and granddaughter.
Sarah, Ms Anna PANASEWICZ's daughter, was very close to her grandmother. She was 4 years old at the time of the attacks.
When Anna was a child, her mother was forced to leave Poland to find work in Belgium. She stressed how strong and courageous her mother always was and never complained; how much she devoted her life to her children and grandchildren.
On the day of the incident, Janina had gone early in the morning to the title services company where she worked. She then left to not be late for work. The family where she was supposed to go clean contacted Anna to inform her that her mother had never arrived...
Anna (who was 5 months pregnant on March 22, 2016) was unable to see her mother's body. She could only see a small plastic bag containing some remains.
In the late morning, Gilles LAURENT's family, who died at Maelbeek, was called to the stand: his three sisters Marlène, Alice, and Sylvie LAURENT.
At the time of the attacks, Gilles had returned from Japan where he lived with his family to make a film and was temporarily staying with one of his sisters in Etterbeek.
Gilles was the only brother in the family. He was considered a small miracle because he was born after the premature deaths of two little sisters.
He was generous, passionate, and full of conviction. He had a deep ecological conscience. He was committed and condemned inequality, racism, intolerance, and obscurantism.
Gilles was also his friends, nature, Bouillon (his hometown) where he always returned with his hiking shoes.
For his first film, Gilles had chosen the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster as his theme. He was curious and passionate about everything.
One of the sisters in particular declared to the accused: "You are all responsible, gentlemen, whatever your role. Our society is also responsible. Gentlemen, I have no hatred towards you. I regret that you did not have the chance to grow up in a world of tolerance towards others. We get up, not quite straight, always a little bumped and dented. Gilles, as you see Marlène, Sylvie, and I are standing. The most important thing is that they did not succeed in destroying the invisible thread that connects us, all 4 of us. When you left, I was terrified of forgetting the sound of your voice. But I don't forget it".
The afternoon began with the hearing of Mr Walter BENJAMIN, seriously injured (amputation of a leg) as a result of the Zaventem attack.
Walter was supposed to travel to Israel to see his daughter. He said: "The man next to me was dead, without a head. His head had exploded and had passed over me."
Seriously injured in the legs and losing a lot of blood, Walter was helped by an airport employee who prevented him from falling asleep and gave him a phone so that he could call his mother. A soldier then made a tourniquet on his right leg. He woke up at UZ BRUSSEL.
What kept him going was the image of his daughter who would have been left without a father. He underwent 14 operations.
According to him, his daughter still has psychological trauma today, which will affect her for the rest of her life.
Walter believes that Belgium has completely abandoned the victims since 22 March 2016.
There has been no “automatic” follow-up, no professional reintegration program for those who could not resume their previous work activities.
For him: "The important thing in the end is not the amount of compensation but the fact that we cannot close this chapter. Every day we are asked for additional documents for insurance (e.g. my company's financial statements in 2012)."
He also mentions his prosthetic leg, which needs to be replaced, and the fact that the airport's insurance has not yet responded to his request for a replacement, even though he does not have the means to finance the acquisition of a new prosthetic.
Walter also wonders why the state pays for the accused's lawyers but victims have to pay for their own lawyer. He criticizes the fact that Me EZKENAZI, ABRINI's lawyer, allegedly stated in the press that "it is an honour" to defend his client.
Walter BENJAMIN then raised a Quran in his right hand, explaining that he had travelled to Morocco and met with an imam to find out if the Quran invites murder: with his hand raised and the Quran held up, he read a Quranic verse.
The accused AYARI then began to shout from his box that Walter had no right to insult the Quran, and that the victim should remain silent.
Salah ABDESLAM then added that "it is shameful to hear this, they (the accused) did nothing".
In response, Walter BENJAMIN pointed at the accused and called them "assassins" and said that Belgium should have transferred them to Morocco.
After a suspension of the hearing ordered by the President to calm the spirits, the testimony of Mr Walter BENJAMIN was able to resume calmly, even if Walter finished his testimony by addressing the accused again: "I do not wish you a happy Ramadan, your place being definitely in hell."
Ms CARETTE then spoke and said to Walter BENJAMIN, "I am the lawyer for Ibrahim FARISI and I thank you especially for your testimony."
As for ABRINI, he stated that "we could have avoided this kind of remark from this witness."
According to him, it is the role of Madam President to say "no, there are no assassins here, they are presumed innocent" adding that there have been acquitted accused in Paris.
And the President replied "I think I'm not doing too bad."
The afternoon continued more calmly with the testimony of Mr Gaëtan MEULEMAN, who worked in the intensive care sector for a very long time (disaster medicine) and has been a volunteer rescuer at the Red Cross since the evening of 22 March 2016.
On that evening, he explains that he worked "automatically": "The terror that one experiences through these victims, you have to live it to understand it. I am fine but I do not understand what is happening to me. I have a complete blackout with regards to faces. I treated so many people that day. Today, I am aware that I have hurt my family, separated from my partner, mother of my children, become asocial, lost contact with all my friends from that time. It took a psychologist to put words on what I had, namely post-traumatic stress".
He is devastated that the school reports to him that his 10-year-old child wants to commit suicide.
Regarding the Red Cross staff, he estimates that a lot of people are not doing well and are not supported. This confirms how much emergency services personnel remain psychologically marked by the events of 22 March 2016.
Gaëtan declares, however, that if this were to happen again tomorrow, he would go help again.
The day ended with the testimony of Gaetano RIZZO, Leonora SALVATRICE and Jonathan ROBINSON.
They are the family of Ms Patricia RIZZO (her parents and her son) who died at Maelbeek.
Patricia RIZZO was an only child. Her parents only have the memory of their daughter's joy left.
She was on the metro train that exploded, right next to the terrorist.
Patricia's brother concludes that the maximum sentence should be pronounced without parole, as it is a matter of everyone's safety.
Support and representation
V-Europe provides support to any victim of terrorism who requests it. At least one of our coordinators is present every day at the trial, wearing a distinctive white jacket with the V-Europe logo on the back. Feel free to let them know you are there if you wish. More information about our coordinators can be found on the V-Europe website, by calling this number:
Do you want to be represented at the trial? V-Europe has set up a group of lawyers who defend the victims during the trial. Guillaume Lys, Nicolas Estienne, Adrien Masset and Sanne de Clerck are joining forces to defend you during this long trial. More information here or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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