Leader of Belgian militant Islamist group sentenced to 12 years

By Robert-Jan Bartunek ANTWERP, Belgium (Reuters) - A Belgian court jailed the head of Sharia4Belgium for 12 years on Wednesday, ruling that his Islamist group was a terrorist organization that brainwashed young men into joining militants in the Middle East. The court handed down the sentence in Belgium's largest trial of alleged militants as the country remained on high alert after authorities uncovered a plot last month to kill police. The authorities believe some 350 Belgian nationals have fought in Syria, the highest per capita level among western European countries. Unlike most other defendants in the trial, the group's leader Fouad Belkacem, 32, did not fight in Syria, but Judge Luc Potargent said he was the driving force in the organization. Prosecutors had asked that he be sentenced to 15 years. "It is clear that Belkacem ... prepared young people physically and psychologically for armed combat," Potargent said. Belkacem initially refused to stand up as the judge read out the sentence, only rising with a big sigh after being told again by the two policemen seated beside him. Forty-five members of the group stood trial in the northern city of Antwerp, although only seven were present in court on Wednesday. Most of the others are still believed to be in Syria. Belkacem, born in a small town between Antwerp and Brussels, was sentenced to three years in prison in 2008 for his part in a large drugs smuggling ring. An appeal is still pending before a Brussels court. Delivering his verdict, Judge Potargent detailed how Sharia4Belgium glorified armed struggle and called for the adoption of Islamic Sharia law by violent means. Members of Sharia4Belgium not only went to fight with Al Qaeda's Syria wing, Jabhat al-Nusra, and organizations which later morphed into Islamic State in Syria but also went to Yemen, the judge said. "The law doesn't state that terrorist attacks already have to be carried out to qualify a group as a terrorist organization. They only have to have the intention to one day carry out such attacks," said Potargent. Much of the prosecution case has relied on the testimony of 20-year-old Jejoen Bontinck, a member of Sharia4Belgium who made national headlines when his father went to Syria to convince him to return. On Wednesday, Potargent gave Bontinck a 40-month suspended sentence. Prosecutors had recommended he be jailed for four years but he finally received a much lighter sentence after providing evidence against his former fellow fighters. (Editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Gareth Jones)