(Reuters) - Belgian prosecutors accused 46 members of Islamist group Sharia4Belgium on Monday of belonging to a terrorist organization 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 Center 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 organization 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 organization.
"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 center 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.
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 organization al-Muhajiroun, who was arrested by British authorities last week.