French extremist in court for Brussels Jewish museum attack trial

This file court drawing made on June 26, 2014, shows Mehdi Nemmouche (C), the 29-year-old suspected gunman in a quadruple murder at the Brussels Jewish Museum, during a court hearing in Versailles, France. (AFP/ Benoit Peyrucq)
Updated 07 January 2019
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French extremist in court for Brussels Jewish museum attack trial

  • More than 300 Belgian and foreign journalists have registered to cover the proceedings which could last until the end of February
  • More than 100 witnesses are due to testify at the trial, which will be attended by the victims' families and Jewish community leaders

BRUSSELS: A French extremist appeared in court on Monday ahead of his trial for shooting dead four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014 following his return from Syria.
Mehdi Nemmouche, accused of being the first battle-hardened extremist to stage a terror attack on European soil, faces a life sentence if convicted over the killing spree in the Belgian capital on May 24, 2014.
Both Nemmouche, 33, and Nacer Bendrer, a fellow Frenchman aged 30 who allegedly supplied the weapons, deny charges of "terrorist murder".
Nemmouche, wearing a blue sweater, spoke only to confirm his identity as the hearing began at 10:30 am (0930 GMT).
"Nemmouche, Mehdi, 33 years old, unemployed," he told the criminal court in Brussels, which is expected to spend Monday selecting the 12-member jury ahead of the start of the full trial on Thursday.
More than 100 witnesses are due to testify at the trial, which will be attended by the victims' families and Jewish community leaders, who have denounced the anti-Semitic nature of the attack.
And more than 300 Belgian and foreign journalists have registered to cover the proceedings which could last until the end of February.
The deadly attack, which lasted only 82 seconds, shocked Belgium and the world.
Firing a pistol and then an assault rifle, the gunman killed two Israeli tourists, a French volunteer and a Belgian receptionist at the Jewish Museum.
Nemmouche - born to a family of Algerian origin in the northern French town of Roubaix - was arrested six days after the attack.
He was caught in the southern French port city of Marseille after arriving on a bus from Brussels, carrying a handgun and an assault rifle.
Before the attack, Nemmouche is said to have fought in Syria as part of a terrorist faction and is also accused of acting as a jailer of kidnapped French journalists.
Investigators say he was in Syria from 2013 to 2014, where he met Najim Laachraoui, a member of the gang which went on to carry out suicide bombings in Brussels that killed 32 people in March 2016.
That same Brussels cell is also alleged to have coordinated and sent extremists to carry out the Paris massacre of November 13, 2015, in which 130 people were killed and hundreds more wounded.
Both attacks were claimed by Daesh, whose activities in Syria and Iraq lured thousands of extremists from Europe.
Nemmouche and Bendrer, investigators say, met nearly a decade ago while in prison in southern France, where they were both described as "radicalised" inmates who tried to win others over.
Bendrer was arrested in Marseille seven months after the Jewish Museum attack and charged as Nemmouche's accomplice.
Although he was jailed for five years in September by a French court for attempted extortion, he was transferred to Belgium for the trial.

Nemmouche is expected to face a separate trial in France for holding French journalists hostage in Syria.
The former hostages are expected to testify about Nemmouche's character during the Brussels trial, despite the defence arguing that theirs is a separate case.
Nemmouche is said to have voiced admiration for Mohamed Merah, who murdered a Jewish father, his two children and an eight-year-old girl in 2012 in the southern French city of Toulouse.
Belgian Jewish leader Yohan Benizri told AFP he feared Nemmouche's lawyers Sebastien Courtoy and Henri Laquay will try to "play down" the anti-Semitic nature of the museum attack.
The defence team, Benizri added, may even try to "twist" the facts by repeating "totally far-fetched" claims that Israel's intelligence service Mossad staged the attack.
"We don't want Mehdi Nemmouche to become a star. He is a terrorist," said Benizri, who heads the Belgian Federation of Jewish Organizations.
Courtoy himself suggested Israeli agents could be behind the attack when he spoke at a pre-trial hearing on December 20.
"There was the same kind of talk in conspiracy and anti-Semitic circles after the September 11 attacks in the United States," Benizri warned.


Hong Kong police begin to clear streets of protesters

An ambulance is pictured surrounded by thousands of protesters dressed in black during a new rally against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong on June 16, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 17 June 2019
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Hong Kong police begin to clear streets of protesters

  • Nearly 2 million of the city’s 7 million people turned out on Sunday, according to estimates by protest organizers

HONG KONG: Hong Kong police and protesters faced off Monday as authorities began trying to clear the streets of a few hundred who remained near the city government headquarters after massive demonstrations that stretched deep into the night before.
The police asked for cooperation in clearing the road. Protesters, many in masks and other gear to guard against possible use of tear gas, responded with chants, some kneeling in front of the officers. The move came after activists rejected an apology from the city’s top leader for her handling of legislation that has stoked fears of expanding control from Beijing in this former British colony.
Hundreds of protesters sat on and along a main road through downtown, but they were scattered over a relatively wide area.
Activists called on Hong Kong residents to boycott classes and work, though it was unclear how many might heed that call.
Nearly 2 million of the city’s 7 million people turned out on Sunday, according to estimates by protest organizers. Police said 338,000 were counted on the designated protest route in the “peak period” of the march. A week earlier as many as 1 million people demonstrated to voice their concern over Hong Kong’s relations with mainland China in one of the toughest tests of the territory’s special status since Beijing took control in a 1997 handover.
After daybreak Monday, police announced that they want to clear the streets. Soon after, police lined up several officers deep and faced off against several hundred demonstrators on a street in central Hong Kong.
The night before, as protesters reached the march’s end thousands gathered outside the city government headquarters and the office of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who on Saturday suspended her effort to force passage of the bill.
Hong Kong residents worry that allowing some suspects to be sent for trial in mainland China would be another of many steps chipping away at Hong Kong’s freedoms and legal autonomy. One concern is that the law might be used to send criminal suspects to China to potentially face vague political charges, possible torture and unfair trials.
The protesters are demanding that Lam scrap the proposal for good and that she step down.
Protesters are also angered over the forceful tactics by police use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other forceful measures as demonstrators broke through barricades outside the city government’s headquarters to quell unrest during demonstrations on Wednesday, and over Lam’s decision to call the clashes a riot. That worsens the potential legal consequences for those involved.
In a statement issued late Sunday, Lam noted the demonstrations and said the government “understands that these views have been made out of love and care for Hong Kong.”
“The chief executive apologizes to the people of Hong Kong for this and pledges to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public,” it said.
Not enough, said the pro-democracy activists.
“This is a total insult to and fooling the people who took to the street!” the Civil Human Rights Front said in a statement.
Protesters have mainly focused their anger on Lam, who had little choice but to carry through dictates issued by Beijing, where President Xi Jinping has enforced increasingly authoritarian rule. But some were skeptical that having Lam step down would help.
“It doesn’t really matter because the next one would be just as evil,” said Kayley Fung, 27.
Many here believe Hong Kong’s legal autonomy has been significantly diminished despite Beijing’s insistence that it is still honoring its promise, dubbed “one country, two systems,” that the territory can retain its own social, legal and political system for 50 years after the handover in 1997.
After Lam announced she was suspending the legislation to avoid more violence and allow additional debate, Chinese government officials issued multiple statements backing that decision. Lam, however, made clear she was not withdrawing it.
She has sidestepped questions over whether she should quit and also defended how the police dealt with last week’s clashes with demonstrators.
Lam insists the extradition legislation is needed if Hong Kong is to uphold justice, meet its international obligations and not become a magnet for fugitives. The proposed bill would expand the scope of criminal suspect transfers to include Taiwan, Macau and mainland China.
So far, China has been excluded from Hong Kong’s extradition agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.
Prosecutions of activists, detentions without trial of five Hong Kong book publishers and the illegal seizure in Hong Kong by mainland agents of at least one mainland businessman are among moves in recent years that have unnerved many in the city of 7 million.