WASHINGTON (CN) — A former professional European soccer player convicted in Belgium 20 years ago of planning a suicide bombing attack on Americans in Europe appeared in U.S. federal court on Monday to begin his jury trial.
Opening arguments began with the prosecution laying out its case against Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian national who played professional soccer Germany beginning in 1989, before a prosecution for drug charges ended that career in 1994.
At Trabelsi's apartment in Brussels, authorities found the chemical formula to create a bomb was scrawled in the pages of a book about soccer. Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Saunders noted that those same bombmaking materials were found in the basement of an Egyptian restaurant in downtown Brussels owned by a friend of Trabelsi.
“There is only one verdict consistent with that evidence: the defendant Nizar Trabelsi is guilty,” Saunders argued.
Now 52, Trabelsi has been kept jailed since the search of his Brussels apartment on Sept. 13, 2001.
His lawyer Sabrina Shroff emphasized that date in her opening statement as she spoke about the atmosphere that pervaded Western countries after the attacks in the U.S. led by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
“After 9/11, the world was on high alert,” Shroff said. “The world was ready to defend America.”
This fervor led Belgium and other American allies in Europe to react “swiftly and emotionally.”
Referring to her client as an innocent bystander caught up in that reaction, she insisted that Trabelsi “is not a terrorist, and we expect the evidence to show exactly that."
The government says Trabelsi traveled to Afghanistan in spring 2001 to join al-Qaida, meeting with bin Laden and receiving training in explosives. He was quickly arrested upon his return to Europe that summer, charged and convicted of plotting to carry out the bombing at the Kleine-Brogel air base, a NATO facility in northeast Belgium used by the U.S. Air Force.
Trabelsi was about a third of the way through his 10-year sentence when a federal grand jury indicted him in 2006 on four counts of conspiracy and material support for terrorism. He was extradited in 2013 to face the charges in Washington.
Belgium's highest court rejected Trabelsi's claim that potential sentence he faces in the U.S. — a life sentence without parole — would be inhumane, but the European Court of Human Rights sided with the defendant in 2016. Though the decision awarded Trabelsi 60,000 euros in damages, plus 30,000 euros more to cover expenses, efforts to stop Trabelsi's U.S. prosecution have been unsuccessful. A special rapporteur on torture noted in 2020 that Trabelsi has spent much of the last 10 years in the U.S. in solitary confinement.
The D.C. Circuit meanwhile rejected Trabelsi's claim that the charges here overlap improperly with the ones he faced in Belgium. Since the Belgian Ministry of Justice did not place any limitations on Trabelsi's extradition or prosecution, the court found that factor more decisive than the finding by the Belgian Court of First Instance that Trabelsi could not be tried again.
Prosecutors on Monday told the jury that the plot to bomb the air base in Brussels was one of two possibilities that Trabelsi was considering. The other was to attack the U.S. Embassy in Paris, and authorities found a detailed plan of the building at Trabelsi's Brussels apartment.
Saunders noted that the plot was in the same vein as others tied to al-Qaida. Apart from 9/11, there was the bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. Other plots that failed targeted the Los Angeles International Airport in 1999 and a year later the Navy ship U.S.S. The Sullivans.
After his arrest in Brussels, the prosecutor noted, Trabelsi confessed to planning an attack and referred to bin Laden as a father figure.
“I was trained to carry out the mission entrusted to me,” Trabelsi said, as quoted by the prosecutor.
Trabelsi's lawyer Shroff told the jury that any comments made to Belgian law enforcement were made under duress and should not be taken as fact given their multiple inconsistencies.
“We all agree that he was born in Tunisia, he is a good soccer player, and he is an incessant talker who made statement after statement after statement to Belgian authorities,” Shroff said. “Most of his statements, if not all, could not be objectively corroborated.”
She urged the jury to keep in mind the fact that the supposed confession her client made was in June 2002, nine months after his initial arrest in 2001. She emphasized her client’s former profession as a soccer player, saying he was not well-versed in the Belgian legal system and “felt like the proverbial lamb being led to the slaughterhouse.”
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