Belgian prosecutors accused 46 members of Islamist group Sharia4Belgium on Monday of belonging to a terrorist organisation and brainwashing young men in Belgium into fighting a holy war in Syria.
Only eight of those charged were present in the heavily secured court room in the northern Belgian port city of Antwerp on Monday. The others were still said to be in Syria.
Belgium's biggest case against Islamist extremism highlights its status as a fertile recruiting ground for militants. About 300 fighters in Syria have come from Belgium, the highest per capita level among western European countries, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.
Prosecutors said the group was led by 32-year-old Fouad Belkacem, the spokesman of Sharia4Belgium, a now disbanded Salafist organisation that wanted sharia law adopted in Belgium. While he did not fight in Syria, unlike most other defendants, prosecutors said he was the main driver behind the organisation.
"Belkacem's words can only be interpreted as a call to violence and jihad," said public prosecutor Ann Fransen, listing a long line of speeches and videos in which he equalled military jihad to praying and fasting.
Belkacem, currently serving a jail term for inciting hatred against non-Muslims, listened closely as the long indictment was read out, at times smiling and whispering to other defendants.
Prosecutors detailed how Sharia4Belgium members approached young men, and a few teenage women, on the streets of Antwerp and Vilvoorde, north of Brussels, to invite them to their centre in Antwerp where they were indoctrinated and readied for their trip to Syria.
"The clear aim was to prepare them for armed combat," substitute prosecutor Luc Festraets said.
Once in Syria, the recruits joined organisations such as the Al Qaeda inspired Jabhat al-Nusra and organisations which later morphed into Islamic State, prosecutors said.
Belkacem, who was born in the small Belgian town of Rumst, halfway between Brussels and Antwerp, was among the founders of Sharia4Belgium in 2010.
Prosecutors said he cooperated closely with British Salafist activist Anjem Choudary, the former head of the now banned organisation al-Muhajiroun, who was arrested by British authorities last week.
That organisation gained notoriety for staging events to commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States with leaflets that referred to the hijackers as "the Magnificent 19".
If found guilty, Belkacem and others could face up to 20 years in prison. Under Belgian law, a defendant is not required to enter a plea.
Jejoen Bontinck, one of those present, has acknowledging travelling to Syria, but said he was there for humanitarian work. His father Dimitri made headlines last year when he travelled to Syria to search for his son.
"This is an important case, not only for us, but also for the whole of Belgium and internationally," Dimitri told Reuters television outside the court building.
The court case in Antwerp comes some four months after a gunman killed four people in a shooting at the Jewish museum in Brussels. Authorities say the suspect in that case, French national Mehdi Nemmouche, spent most of 2013 fighting in Syria.