This Day in Jewish History

1989: A Belgian Immunologist and Holocaust Survivor Is Shot Dead in a Parking Lot

Why and by whom remain shrouded in mystery.

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On October 3, 1989, Joseph Wybran, a Belgian immunologist and head of the umbrella organization of Belgian Jewish groups, was shot to death in the parking lot of the Erasmus Hospital of the Free University of Brussels, where he worked. At the time, an obscure Beirut-based organization called Soldiers of the Right claimed responsibility for the murder, but in 2008, a Moroccan-Belgian terror figure named Abdelkadder Belliraj purportedly confessed to it and a number of other political killings. The following year, a Moroccan court convicted him of a number of terror-related crimes and sentenced to him to life in prison, although by then he had claimed that his confessions were extracted by way of torture.

Wybran, born in 1940, survived the Holocaust in Belgium while in hiding with a non-Jewish family. According to an article by Yossi Melman about the murder published in this paper in 2008, he was a member in the Bnei Akiva religious-Zionist youth movement, and served as an officer in the Belgian armed forces. He studied medicine, specializing in immunology, in which he acquired a worldwide reputation for his research.

Wybran’s particular field of expertise was the interaction of opium-based drugs with human lymphocytes (white blood cells, which are responsible for immunity defenses). A paper he wrote on his findings in 1979 for the Journal of Immunology was the most cited article in the field during the early 1980s. Wibran was also involved in early AIDS research.

As an active member of Belgium’s community of some 30,000 Jews, Wibran had headed the Brussels section of the men’s communal organization Bnai Brith. In December 1988, he became the chairman of the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations in Belgium.

In that capacity, Wibran was involved in the emotionally-charged campaign of causing the removal of a Catholic Carmelite convent from the grounds of what had been the Auschwitz death camp, in Poland. In 1987, the Catholic Church ordered the convent to move, but by 1989, this still had not happened.

Men of peace and dialogue

As head of the Belgian Auschwitz Committee, Joe Wybran visited Poland shortly before his death to meet with Cardinal Jozef Glemp, the Church’s highest official in the country, to urge for the closing of the convent. He also participated in demonstrations outside the Church’s diplomatic mission in Brussels.

Initial speculation after his death, therefore, suggested that he had been assassinated by right-wing terrorists in response to his efforts regarding the convent. At the time, for example, Avi Primor, then Israel’s ambassador to Belgium, told the Associated Press that he suspected Belgian neo-Nazis of the murder, saying that, “They have a lot of reason to be angry at Prof. Wybran.”

Shortly after 6 P.M. on Tuesday evening, October 3, 1989, Wybran was leaving work at Erasmus hospital, where he headed the department of immunology, hematology and blood transfusions. As he was about to enter his car, someone approached him and shot him once in the head with a 7.85-mm revolver. He was found a short time later, still alive, but died early the following morning in the hospital.

Six months earlier, Abdullah Ahdal el-Hasi, the imam of the Great Mosque of Brussels and his assistant, Salem Bahri, were murdered in a similar manner at the mosque. At the time, the Soldiers of the Right, the same shadowy Lebanese organization that later claimed responsibility for Wybran’s killing, declared that it had assassinated Ahdal. But it was only in 2008, when Morocco announced the arrest and confession of Abdelkadder Belliraj, that the two killings were officially connected.

When Emmy Wybran, the widow of the slain doctor, heard about the arrest of Belliraj, she told the European Jewish Press service that she had always believed the two murders were connected. "They both were men of peace and dialogue,” she was quoted as saying. “Extremists don’t like people of dialogue."

Dinner with Bin Laden

Belliraj, who was born in Morocco in 1957, spent much of the 1980s involved in criminal activity in Belgium, much of it of a political nature, including arms smuggling and money-laundering. Later, in the 1990s, he also worked as an informant for Belgian security services, providing intelligence about Al-Qaida. He even claimed that he had dined with Osama Bin Laden two weeks before the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

When he was arrested in Morocco in 2008, Belliraj confessed to six murders in Belgium. Four of them were of Arab Muslims living in Belgium and two were of Jews, Wybran and also Raoul Schuppe, a former warrant officer in the Belgian air force.
Three of them, Belliraj purportedly said, had been ordered by arch-terrorist Abu Nidal, who paid him, according to news reports, $300 for his efforts. In an open letter to the Belgian press, however, in August of that year, he recanted his confession, charging that he had been tortured.

On June 27, 2009, Belliraj was convicted in the Sale Criminal Appeal Court, near the capital of Rabat, of "plotting terror attacks in Morocco, holdups in Europe, large-scale money laundering projects and arms trafficking." He was sentenced to life in prison. A 2010 appeal of his convictions was turned down.

Apparently, this is as close as anyone will come to being charged with the killing of Wybran. Belgian officials have said that the likelihood of Morocco extraditing Belliraj to that their country is minimal.

The following year, the Belgian State Security Service published its first online report on intelligence affairs. There, commenting on the Belliraj case, it suggested that the Moroccans had “not indisputably demonstrated the existence of a [terror] network nor its implication in six murders in Belgium.