Jihadist Mehdi Nemmouche appeared in court ahead of his trial for shooting and killing four people at the Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014.
Nemmouche, accused of being the first battle-hardened jihadist 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 him, 33, and Nacer Bendrer, a fellow Frenchman aged 30 who allegedly supplied the weapons, deny charges of “terrorist murder”.
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 antisemitic nature of the attack.
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.
Before the attack, Nemmouche is said to have fought in Syria as part of a jihadist faction and is also accused of acting as a jailer of kidnapped French journalists.
Nemmouche is expected to face a separate trial in France for holding French journalists hostage in Syria.
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 antisemitic 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 Coordinating Committee of Belgian Jewish Organisations (CCOJB), the country’s EJC affiliate.
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 antisemitic circles after the September 11 attacks in the United States,” Benizri warned.