“Unlike some other European nations, Belgium does not have anti-terrorist laws which allow suspects to be held for longer than 24 hours without charge,” but Belgian authorities are still investigating and gathering evidence. The article makes no mention of what sort of limitations, if any, have been placed on the suspects’ movement and activity in the meantime.
BRUSSELS, Belgium – Belgian authorities on Saturday released 14 suspects detained over an alleged plot to free an al-Qaida prisoner after a court decided there was insufficient evidence to hold them for more than 24 hours, the Federal Prosecutor’s office said.
The government’s Crisis Center said the investigation was not over. And Lieve Pellens, spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office, said tightened anti-terrorism measures triggered by the arrest of the suspected Islamic militants on Friday would remain in place over the holidays.
“We think there is still a threat,” Pellens said in a telephone interview.
Police picked up the 14 suspects in a series of early morning raids Friday. Earlier reports indicated that explosives and arms were also seized, but Pellens said Saturday that searches of the suspects’ homes had found no explosives, weapons or other evidence to persuade the court to charge them with any offense or keep them in jail.
Unlike some other European nations, Belgium does not have anti-terrorist laws which allow suspects to be held for longer than 24 hours without charge, Pellens said.
The 14 were expected to remain under police surveillance and could be detained again if more evidence is uncovered. The authorities did not release the suspects’ identities.
Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and the prosecutor’s office alleged the suspects planned to use explosives and weapons to free Nizar Trabelsi. The 37-year-old Tunisian was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2003 for planning to a drive a car bomb into the cafeteria of a Belgian air base where about 100 American military personnel are stationed.
The U.S. Embassy had warned Americans “there is currently a heightened risk of terrorist attack in Brussels,” although it said it had no indication of specific targets.
The government’s Crisis Center said the investigation was continuing into other material found in the searches.
“The release of the 14 does not mean the investigation is finished, all the material that was found is being examined,” said Alain Lefevre, a director of the center. “Depending on the results, our measures will be adapted.”
Authorities tightened security, warning of a heightened threat of attacks despite the arrests. Police stepped up patrols at Brussels airport, subway stations and the downtown Christmas market, which draws large crowds of holiday shoppers.
“Other acts of violence are not to be excluded,” warned Verhofstadt.
Lefevre said army bomb disposal units were called in overnight to investigate a car parked near the U.S. Embassy and a rucksack left at a Brussels pizzeria, but both were false alarms.
Pellens said intelligence that an attack could be imminent meant the security forces had to act without waiting to gather the evidence.
“We could not treat this as we would a normal criminal case,” Pellens said.
“According to our investigation there were sufficient indications pointing to a terrorist threat; that is why we did not wait to detain the suspects,” she said. “But the suspects have not been formally charged and, unfortunately, their release does not come as a surprise to us.”