Belgium and France together face a giant task in ensuring security for the trial of Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam, including guarding a 19th century courthouse against 21st century threats.
Each day will pose a challenge as elite police units ferry Abdeslam to the Palais de Justice in Brussels from a prison in northern France every morning, and back again at night.
In Brussels, police will have to guard a building with a surface area greater than Saint-Peter’s basilica in Rome, 1,530 doors and 1,513 windows, which Belgian authorities nominated as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Luc Hennart, who presides over the court and is organizing the trial, said this criminal hearing must remain as “normal” as possible, but the circumstances will be exceptional.
Security forces are leaving no scenario to chance — escape bids, suicide attempts and even another attack — for the first public appearance of a defendant who was Europe’s most wanted man.
He is not only the sole surviving suspect in the Paris attacks, but is also allegedly part of the same cell that carried out the Brussels suicide bombings on March 22, 2016.
If the Belgian authorities’ patchy response to the attacks was seen by many as a reflection of a complex federal system divided between French and Dutch speakers, the same might be said of the venue for the trial.
The Palais de Justice is an imposing, yet rundown structure commanding one of the highest points in Brussels, topped by a gilded cupola towering more than 100m high, but the building has been under constant renovation for years and the Belgian government, its owner, says it will not finish until 2028.
“If you were born after 1982, you have not seen it without scaffolding,” one Belgian commentator said.
It is here that Abdeslam is to appear on four days next week to stand trial for his alleged role in a shoot-out in Brussels last year with police investigating the November 2015 Paris attacks.
With his alleged accomplice, 24-year-old Tunisian Sofiane Ayari, he is to be tried on weapons charges and other terror offenses linked to the gunbattle.
Abdeslam is to face the tribunal in the first row of the courtroom, with his back to the public.
The room is able to hold 80 people — lawyers, journalists, representatives of victims’ associations and even curious members of the public.
For the hundreds of local and international journalists expected, a video broadcast of the hearing is scheduled to be beamed into a larger nearby room.
With stepped up security, the Palais de Justice is to be accessible only through one entrance where judges, lawyers and journalists are to pass through metal detectors. Other entrances are to be watched closely, while the police plan to bar cars from parking in the surrounding streets.
However, one of the most complex parts of holding the trial will be the daily arrival and departure of Abdeslam.
French and Belgian forces are to take joint responsibility for escorting the defendants from Vendin-le-Vieil in France, a source close to the case said.
They are to be taken either by road or by helicopter, but a decision is not being taken until the last moment and no options are excluded, the source said.
Security is likely to be tight across the capital.
Belgium lowered its terror threat level — from three to two on a maximum scale of four — on Monday last week after three years of high alert, but troops still guard key sites.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said it was “not the same level two as before” the attacks, adding that a new and reinforced security culture was now in place in the nation.
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