Leader of radical Belgian Islamist group sentenced to 12 years

Authorities estimate that some 350 Belgians have left for Syria to fight for ISIS

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A Belgian court sentenced the head of Islamist group Sharia4Belgium to 12 years in prison on Wednesday, ruling that his group was a terrorist organization that convinced young people to join fighters in the Middle East.

While 32-year-old Fouad Belkacem did not fight in Syria, unlike most other defendants, Judge Luc Potargent said he was the driving force in the organization. Prosecutors had asked that he be sentenced to 15 years.

The sentence in Belgium's largest trial of alleged militants came as the country was on high alert after authorities uncovered a plot last month to kill police across the country.

Belgium has proved to be a fertile ground for jihadist recruiters, with authorities estimating that some 350 Belgians have left for Syria to fight for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or similar groups.

Only nine of the 46 people accused were present in the court when the trial started. Others are believed still to be fighting in Syria or to have died in combat.

The main witness in the trial, 20-year-old Jejoen Bontinck, made headlines when his father went to Syria to convince him to return to Belgium. Prosecutors have asked that he be jailed for four years.

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