Court sentences main suspects in Belgium’s deadliest peacetime attack to 20-year to life terms

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A Belgian court sentenced five men to sentences ranging from 20 years to life in prison on charges of terrorist murder in connection with 2016 suicide bombings that killed 32 people and wounded hundreds at Brussels airport and a busy subway station. (AP/File)
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Defendants Salah Abdeslam, Osama Krayem and Mohamed Abrini are escorted by police as they arrive in court during the trial of the 2016 Brussels attacks at the Justitia building in Brussels on April 3, 2023. (Reuters/File)
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Updated 16 September 2023
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Court sentences main suspects in Belgium’s deadliest peacetime attack to 20-year to life terms

  • A chief suspect, Salah Abdeslam, had previously been given a 20-year sentence for involvement in a shootout days before the March 22, 2016, attacks
  • Abdeslam was serving a life sentence without parole in France over his part in attacks that hit Paris

BRUSSELS: A Belgian court on Friday sentenced five men to sentences ranging from 20 years to life in prison on charges of terrorist murder in connection with 2016 suicide bombings that killed 32 people and wounded hundreds at Brussels airport and a busy subway station, the country’s deadliest peacetime attack.
A chief suspect, Salah Abdeslam, had previously been given a 20-year sentence for involvement in a shootout days before the March 22, 2016, attacks and received no further jail time. It happened after police discovered him and another suspect by accident when they inspected what they thought was an empty apartment. Four officers were hurt.
Abdeslam was serving a life sentence without parole in France over his part in attacks that hit Paris cafes, the Bataclan theater and France’s national stadium in 2015. Both the Paris and Brussels attacks were linked to the same Daesh network.
Taking the stand at a high security court in Brussels on Monday before the jury and magistrates retired to deliberate on sentences, Abdeslam implored them for leniency, insisting that he did not take part in the suicide bombings in Belgium – two at the city’s airport and one on a subway train during the morning rush hour — and was not aware of the plot.
“I have been demonized. You’ve condemned someone who doesn’t deserve it,” the 34-year-old Frenchman said, according to Belgian daily Le Soir. “I ask you to be fair with this last decision,” on sentencing.
In total, 10 defendants were involved in what has been the biggest trial in Belgium’s judicial history. Two brothers were acquitted of all charges. The other eight were convicted of participating in activities of a terrorist group; six of those eight also were convicted of terrorist murder.
Abdeslam was the only survivor among the Daesh extremists who struck Paris in November 2015. After months on the run, he was captured in Brussels on March 18, 2016. His arrest may have prompted other members of the Daesh cell to rush ahead with attack plans on the Belgian capital.
Also convicted of terrorist murder at the trial was Mohamed Abrini, a childhood friend of Abdeslam and a Brussels native who walked away from Zaventem Airport – Belgium’s main air hub – after his explosives failed to detonate. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Two others accused of playing a role in the suicide bombing plot – Osama Krayem and Bilal El Makhoukhi – were sentenced to life in prison, while a third, Ali El Haddad Asufi, received a 20-year term.
Oussama Atar, identified as a possible organizer of the deadly attacks on both Paris and Brussels, was convicted of terrorist murder in absentia. He is believed to have died in the Daesh group’s final months of fighting in Iraq and Syria, but was also sentenced to life in prison.


Swedish diplomat in ‘seventh heaven’ following release from Iran

Updated 3 sec ago
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Swedish diplomat in ‘seventh heaven’ following release from Iran

  • “I have been waiting for this for almost 800 days,” Floderus said

STOCKHOLM: Swedish citizen Johan Floderus said he was in seventh heaven following his release from an Iranian prison on Saturday, in a recording published on the Swedish government’s website on Sunday.
Sweden and Iran carried out a prisoner exchange on Saturday with Sweden freeing a former Iranian official convicted for his role in the mass execution and torture of political prisoners in Iran in 1988, while Iran released two Swedes being held there.
“I’m in the sky but emotionally I’m in seventh heaven. I have been waiting for this for almost 800 days,” Floderus said in a recording of a telephone call between him and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson while he was on the flight back to Sweden.
Floderus, a European Union employee, was arrested in Iran in 2022 and charged with spying for Israel and “corruption on earth,” a crime that carries the death penalty.
He said he had dreamt of the day of his release endless times. “Only to later wake up on that damn concrete floor,” he said. “Now it is starting to sink in that I have left Iranian airspace and I am on my way back home again.”
In a radio interview earlier on Sunday, Kristersson dismissed criticism from the wife of Swedish-Iranian dual national, Ahmadreza Djalali, who remains in an Iranian jail after Tehran refused to include him in the exchange.
“I have a lot of respect for her disappointment, but don’t really understand the criticism. The alternative would have been to leave the two Swedes who could now come home,” he told Swedish radio.


Labour steps up efforts to win Muslim votes ahead of election

Updated 9 min 12 sec ago
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Labour steps up efforts to win Muslim votes ahead of election

  • Party is targeting 13 typically pro-Labour seats with Muslim populations greater than a fifth of the total
  • Labour is concerned its record on Gaza might cost it support ahead of polling day, despite 63% planning to back it on July 4

LONDON: The Labour Party is increasing its campaigning in areas where it fears losing votes over its stance on the war in Gaza ahead of the upcoming UK general election on July 4.

The party has identified 13 typically pro-Labour constituencies in areas with large Muslim populations where it is directing activists to focus their activities.

Labour is set to win a vast majority at the election, but losing such seats could prove an embarrassment for leader Sir Keir Starmer.

The Labour website identifies the 13 target constituencies with Muslim populations greater than 20 percent of the total on a larger list of 28 seats for people registering to canvass for the party ahead of the election. They include seats in the typical Labour strongholds of Birmingham, Luton and Bradford.

The party has already suffered at the hands of voters disgruntled by Sir Keir’s approach to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, losing the Rochdale by-election to former Labour MP George Galloway.

Nationwide local elections in May also saw a lower-than-expected turnout in some areas, with Muslim voters in particular avoiding voting for the party where they might once have been expected to after Sir Keir proved reluctant to back calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and even suggested Israel “has the right” to cut off electricity and water supplies to the enclave.

Sir Keir later clarified he meant Israel had a “right to self-defense” and Labour has subsequently backed calls for a ceasefire, but some within the party fear significant damage has been done to its reputation with British Muslim voters.

The party is still expected to perform well overall with the Muslim community, with recent polling by Savanta suggesting 63 percent plan to vote Labour on July 4, many citing healthcare and the economy as more pressing concerns than Gaza. Around 20 percent of Muslim voters cited the war as their main electoral concern.

However, over 40 percent placed Gaza in their top five ranking of issues most important to them, with 86 percent of those also saying they would consider voting for an independent candidate running on a pro-Palestine platform.

The organization Muslim Vote has published a list of alternative candidates running on similar platforms, including calling for a ceasefire, sanctions on Israel and demanding more action on Islamophobia.

The director of the British Future think tank, Sunder Katwala, told the Observer: “I think it makes sense for (Labour) to worry, and to be seen to worry, and to be putting energy into (Muslim communities). Across the whole of British society, this is the demographic group where it’s most likely that Labour might slip backwards in support, not gain in support.

“The evidence in the local elections was of a surprisingly big impact. And the evidence in the national polling is of a surprisingly small impact. And that might be because voters are thinking strategically about the use of different elections.”

He added: “The Labour party is losing votes among Muslims and not any other group but is probably more popular among Muslims than any other section of the electorate.

“I think the (Muslim) student (activist) group is deserting Labour, and their mums and dads and grandparents are probably sticking with Labour much more.”


Thousands of Muslims gather to celebrate Eid across Philippines

Updated 16 June 2024
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Thousands of Muslims gather to celebrate Eid across Philippines

  • Muslims constitute about 10 percent of the majority Catholic population
  • President Marcos declared June 17 a national holiday to observe Eid Al-Adha

MANILA: Filipino Muslims across the country gathered on Sunday for Eid Al-Adha prayers to mark the Feast of Sacrifice.

There are some 12 million Muslims among the nearly 120 million, predominantly Catholic population, according to data from the National Commission for Muslim Filipinos collected in 2024.

They live mostly on the island of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago in the country’s south, as well as in Manila, constituting the third-largest Muslim community in Southeast Asia after Indonesia and Malaysia.

Earlier this month, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. declared Monday, June 17 a national holiday to observe Eid Al-Adha, the second of the two main holidays observed in Islam.

In the Philippine capital region, thousands of Muslims braved the rain for Eid prayers, gathering at the Quezon Memorial Circle for a communal prayer that began early in the morning.

“It rained as early as 5 a.m. First it was just drizzles, then there was a downpour, and then the rain stopped. Good thing that we were able to perform the prayer before it rained again,” Nords Maguindanao, a Muslim resident of Quezon city, told Arab News.

“There were thousands who came to celebrate Eid Al-Adha. The heavy rain did not stop us from congregating … Today we literally had to endure the rain, sacrifice our time and patience. The bad weather was really a test of patience. But overall what is important is that families are united on Eid.”

Maguindanao, who was with his wife and children, has attended the gatherings at Quezon Memorial Circle for years. It is one of the major venues for Eid celebrations in the area, the other being the Quirino Grandstand in Manila.

“The unity of Muslims in Quezon City was shown through this Eid prayer because of the overwhelming attendance of the city’s Muslim constituents,” he said.

Ali Macabalang, a local journalist from Kidapawan City in the country’s south, told Arab News that he gathered with hundreds of other Muslims at a small park to celebrate Eid this year.

“Eid Al-Adha for me is the very moment of performing or seeking atonement and renewal of connections to the Almighty Creator,” Macabalang said.

“After the prayer, the Imam delivered a sermon reminding Muslims of their duties not only to God but to the community, then to themselves. After that, families partake of the food, which is the basic component of every celebration.”

Eid Al-Adha commemorates the Prophet Ibrahim’s test of faith when he was commanded by God to sacrifice his son, and also marks the culmination of Hajj, the annual pilgrimage that is one of the five pillars of Islam.

In Cotabato City, the main city of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, local authorities celebrated the holiday with reflections on their struggles over the years.

Bangsamoro, the only Muslim-majority territory in the Philippines covering central Mindanao, was until 2014 at the heart of a four-decades-long separatist struggle. The BARMM was formed in 2019 as part of the region’s transition to autonomy, which will culminate in 2025, when it will elect its legislature and executive.

“Today is a moment for every believer to remain true to our core values: that, amidst the challenges of life, the sacrifices we endure hold profound meaning and wisdom,” the BARMM’s chief minister, Murad Ebrahim, said.

“It is through the sacrifices and obedience of the Bangsamoro people that we have progressed in our struggle for justice and equality.”


What to know about Trump’s outreach with Arab Americans led by his daughter Tiffany’s father-in-law

Updated 16 June 2024
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What to know about Trump’s outreach with Arab Americans led by his daughter Tiffany’s father-in-law

  • Skepticism remains among Arab American community about whether Boulos can shape potential decisions by Trump
  • Many remain offended by Trump’s first-term immigration ban from several majority Muslim countries

LANSING: Donald Trump’s allies are working to win over Arab American voter s who are unhappy with President Joe Biden’s support for Israel.
The effort is led by Massad Boulos, whose son married Tiffany Trump, the former president’s younger daughter, two years ago. Boulos, a Lebanese-born businessman, is now using his connections in the Arab American community and meeting with its leaders in Michigan, home to many Arab American Democrats who are disenchanted with Biden.
But any apparent political opportunity for Trump may be limited. Many Arab Americans remain offended by Trump’s ban, while in office, on immigration from several majority Muslim countries and other remarks they consider insulting. Trump also has criticized Biden for not being a strong enough supporter of Israel.
In interviews with The Associated Press, Boulos outlined his outreach efforts and discussed his plans. Those who have met with him shared their thoughts on whether the strategy is working.
An unknown emissary
Boulos, who is frequently overseas managing a Nigerian-based conglomerate, first became directly involved in US politics in 2019 when he met Trump. At the time, his son Michael was dating Tiffany Trump.
Before the 2020 election, Boulos assisted with Arab American outreach in a minor role. His involvement has significantly expanded this year as Trump allies aim to exploit divisions within Biden’s Democratic base. Boulos is working closely with an Arab Americans for Trump group that has set up operations in Arizona and Michigan.
The Michigan meetings
In May, Massad and Michael Boulos traveled to metro Detroit with Richard Grenell, a key foreign policy adviser to Trump and his former ambassador to Germany, to meet with a group of close to 40 Arab American activists from across the country.
A little over a week later, Boulos returned for a more extensive round of engagements. He conducted individual meetings with several prominent community leaders and organized larger gatherings, each drawing nearly 50 Arab American community members.
Those who have engaged with Boulos so far are skeptical about the impact of these efforts. They note a lack of substantial evidence supporting the assertion that Trump is the better candidate for Arab Americans.
“Massad is unable to convince people to come to Trump’s side because he hasn’t offered anything substantial to the community,” said Osama Siblani, a publisher of the Arab American News in Dearborn.
Electoral impact
Both major parties have focused on the Arab American vote due to the community’s significant population in Michigan, which is expected to play a decisive role in the presidential election.
Trump won Michigan by just over 10,000 votes in 2016. Biden retook the state for the Democrats in 2020 by a roughly 154,000-vote margin.
Michigan holds the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the nation, with more than 310,000 residents of Middle Eastern or North African ancestry, according to the most recent census.
More than 100,000 Michigan Democratic primary voters in February cast ballots for “uncommitted” in the presidential race, enough to pick up two delegates. In two Muslim-majority Michigan cities, including Dearborn, which holds close to 110,000 people, the “uncommitted” vote defeated Biden in the Democratic primary.
The Trump connection
Boulos is the latest relative to rise in Trump’s political circle. The former president has a long history of putting family members and their relatives in key roles in his campaigns and at the White House.
Recently, Trump handpicked his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, as the Republican National Committee’s co-chair.
During his first term, he appointed his daughter Ivanka as a senior White House adviser and his son-in-law Jared Kushner to oversee major issues such as Middle East peace, criminal justice reform and the government’s coronavirus response.
Boulos calls Trump a “family friend.” But Boulos insists that his outreach efforts so far have been “more of a personal effort to reconnect with friends.” He adds that the key messages emerging from meetings with Arab Americans are communicated to Trump and influenced a recent statement on the Middle East posted on Trump’s social media platform, Truth Social.
But to some attendees of the meetings, the direct connection to Trump matters little when Boulos can’t make promises on future policy.
“Family members are are fine. But at the end of the day, we have to sit down with someone who’s going to be a policymaker,” Siblani said. “And knowing Trump, only Trump can sit down and talk about his policy.”


Hamburg police fire shots at axe-wielding person at Euro 2024 fan parade

Updated 16 June 2024
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Hamburg police fire shots at axe-wielding person at Euro 2024 fan parade

  • Major police operation is now underway and the attacker is currently receiving medical care for injuries

FRANKFURT: German police fired shots at a person who threatened officers with a pickaxe and an incendiary device on the sidelines of a Euro 2024 soccer fan parade in central Hamburg on Sunday, according to a police post on social media platform X.
A major police operation is now underway and the attacker is currently receiving medical care for injuries, the post added.
The incident occurred in the St. Pauli district of the city as Poland and the Netherlands prepare to play against each other in Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion at 3 p.m. (1300 GMT).
Fan marches are scheduled ahead of the games, and a parade for Dutch supporters was held at 12:30 p.m. (1030 GMT), around the time of the incident.
Germany is hosting the month-long tournament that began on Friday night.