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A Belgian court has sentenced the leader of a religious group to 12 years in prison for recruiting fighters to join armed groups in war-ravaged Syria.

Fouad Belkacem, 32, the chief of the Sharia4Belgium group, was convicted on Wednesday by a court in the northern port city of Antwerp for radicalising, recruiting and dispatching young men to fight in Syria.

Prosecutors had asked that he be sentenced to 15 years.

In one of the biggest cases of its kind in Europe, the court jailed several other members of the group, calling it "a terrorist organisation".

Forty-six members of the group originally faced charges, but only eight were actually present during the five-month trial, with one deemed medically unfit to stand trial. The rest were believed to be either still in Syria, or dead.

"Around 350 fighters are estimated to be in Syria to fight, highest number per capita in Europe," Al Jazeera’s Simon McGregor-Wood said, reporting from Antwerp.

"It is a big warning to young Belgians who consider going to Syria to fight as it confirms that they will be prosecuted regardless how serious their activities there." 

'Salafist combat'

The judge said in the ruling that Belkacem was "responsible for the radicalisation of young men to prepare them for Salafist combat, which has at its core no place for democratic values".

"Sharia4Belgium recruited these young men for armed combat and organised their departure for Syria."

The other members of the group were sentenced to between three and five years in prison, with some of the sentences being suspended.

Muslim convert Jejoen Bontinck, 19, whose father brought him home from Syria in a celebrated case and who later became a key prosecution witness, received a 40-month suspended sentence.

Bontinck's father said he was happy that his son received only a suspended sentence, according to the AP news agency, but warned that the trial could only fuel unrest.

"This verdict could create more hate and frustration,'' he said.

Security was tight at the court for the verdict, which came a month after two suspected fighters were killed in Belgium during what Belgian authorities said an anti-terror operation.

Source: Agencies