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

BRUSSELS (AP) — 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 Islamic State 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.

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“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 Islamic State 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 IS 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 Islamic State group’s final months of fighting in Iraq and Syria, but was also sentenced to life in prison.

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This story has been corrected to show that Abdeslam received no new prison sentence.