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Brussels Jewish museum terror attack trial opens

The suspected ISIS militant faces a life sentence if convicted

This file court drawing shows Mehdi Nemmouche (C), during a court hearing in Versailles, France. AFP
This file court drawing shows Mehdi Nemmouche (C), during a court hearing in Versailles, France. AFP

The trial opened on Thursday of a Frenchman accused of shooting four people dead at a Jewish museum in Brussels. If convicted, Mehdi Nemmouche, 33, would be the first returning fighter from the Syrian Civil War to carry out a terrorist attack on European soil.

He faces a life sentence if found guilty of the killings in the Belgian capital on May 24, 2014.

Both Nemmouche and Nacer Bendrer, a fellow Frenchman aged 30 who is accused of supplying the weapons, appeared in a Brussels criminal court on Thursday morning to a fanfare of media attention.

Both have previously denied charges over the anti-Semitic attack. Bendrer could also be jailed for life if convicted.

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Over 100 witnesses are set to testify at the trial attended by the victims' families and Jewish community leaders. Proceedings were initially delayed amid reports that a juror was late.

Accompanied by two police officers in balaclavas, Nemmouche sat down in the dock wearing an orange sweater. His lawyer Henri Laquay said his client was "relaxed, calm," adding: "He will choose the moment when to speak."

Heavy security was on show around the courthouse where the man accused of carrying out the 82-second shooting spree will be tried.

With a pistol and assault rifle, the gunman killed two Israeli tourists, a French volunteer and a Belgian receptionist at the Jewish Museum. Some of these weapons were on show in court as evidence.

Nemmouche - born to a family of Algerian origin in the northern French town of Roubaix - was arrested six days after the attack in the southern French port city of Marseille after arriving on a bus from Brussels.

Investigators say he was carrying a handgun and an assault rifle used in the attack, as well as a recording appearing to show support for ISIS.

It's claimed he fought with a militant faction 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 militants 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 ISIS, whose activities in Syria and Iraq lured thousands of fighters 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 regularly proselytised their extreme views.

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.

"When I hear his lawyers say he is someone who can be very polite, very urbane, sure. He is a clever one," former hostage Didier Francois told Europe 1 radio.

"But, as for me, I will never forget his capacity for violence," the journalist said.

More than 300 Belgian and foreign journalists have registered to cover the museum attack trial which could last until the end of February.

Updated: January 10, 2019 07:24 PM

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