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Alleged helpers of Danish synagogue killer go on trial

Four suspects deny aiding man who murdered guard Dan Uzan, Swedish artist Lars Vilks in twin Copenhagen shootings

A man kneels next to flowers laid in honor of the shooting victims outside the Kruttoende cultural center in Copenhagen, Denmark on February 15, 2015. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / CLAUS BJORN LARSEN)
A man kneels next to flowers laid in honor of the shooting victims outside the Kruttoende cultural center in Copenhagen, Denmark on February 15, 2015. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / CLAUS BJORN LARSEN)

COPENHAGEN (AFP) — Four Danish men accused of aiding a Copenhagen gunman who killed a filmmaker and a Jewish security guard in twin attacks last year were to go on trial on Thursday.

The four stand accused of committing “terror offenses” by providing support for Danish-Palestinian Omar El-Hussein ahead of the second attack, which took place outside a synagogue.

El-Hussein, 22, was shot dead by police hours later, having killed two people and wounded five.

The prosecution said it could prove the four suspects were in close contact with El-Hussein in the hours after the first attack.

Omar El-Hussein, the 22-year-old gunman behind the double shootings in Copenhagen (screen capture: YouTube)
Omar El-Hussein, the 22-year-old gunman behind the double shootings in Copenhagen (screen capture: YouTube)

“There has been a very comprehensive investigation involving a very large number of police,” prosecutor Bo Bjerregaard told AFP.

On February 14, 2015, Danish-born El-Hussein opened fire with an automatic rifle outside a cultural center hosting a free speech event attended by Swedish artist Lars Vilks, reviled by Islamists for portraying the Prophet Mohammed as a dog in 2007.

In what is believed to have been an attempt to stop the assailant outside the center, filmmaker Finn Norgaard, 55, was killed and three police officers were wounded.

Swedish artist Lars Vilks in Nyhamnslage, Sweden, on January 3, 2012 (photo credit: AFP/TT News Agency/Bjorn Lindgren)
Swedish artist Lars Vilks in Nyhamnslage, Sweden, on January 3, 2012 (photo credit: AFP/TT News Agency/Bjorn Lindgren)

Later that night, El-Hussein — seemingly inspired by the attacks on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo — headed to the city’s main synagogue, where he shot 37-year-old Jewish security guard Dan Uzan.

As the shots were fired outside, an eerie silence fell inside Copenhagen’s Great Synagogue, where worshippers were celebrating a Bat Mitzvah, a Jewish girl’s coming of age.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen talks to Bodil Uzan (L), the mother of Dan Uzan who was killed while working as a security guard at the synagoge, during a commemoration in Copenhagen February 14, 2016. (AFP/Scanpix/Liselotte SABROE)
Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen talks to Bodil Uzan (L), the mother of Dan Uzan who was killed while working as a security guard at the synagoge, during a commemoration in Copenhagen February 14, 2016. (AFP/Scanpix/Liselotte SABROE)

Claus Bentow, the girl’s father, said he “tried not to think too much” about the trial.

“Everyone in the family has seen a psychologist. We are all deeply affected,” he told AFP.

As preliminary hearings were closed to the public, little is known about the suspects, all of whom deny the charges.

“My client pleads not guilty and looks forward to finally starting the trial. It’s now been almost a year since he was arrested,” said Berit Ernst, a lawyer for one of the men.

Aged between 20 and 31, all are believed to be Danish citizens but two hold dual citizenship and could risk deportation, according to Danish media.

Police forces patrol in a street near the Norrebro Station where the alleged author of two fatal attacks opened fire in the Danish capital before being shot in a police action at another place in Copenhagen on February 15, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Scanpix Denmark/ Martin Sylvest)
Police forces patrol in a street near the Norrebro Station where the alleged author of two fatal attacks opened fire in the Danish capital before being shot in a police action at another place in Copenhagen on February 15, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Scanpix Denmark/ Martin Sylvest)

They are accused of having provided the killer with ammunition, a hoodie and a bag — all used in the second attack — and for having paid for his time in an Internet cafe where he located his second target, the synagogue.

Two of the men have also been charged with helping him get rid of an M95 assault rifle he used outside the cultural center.

The four have been detained since February and March last year and could face life in prison if found guilty.

The prosecution has set aside 30 court days for the trial.

A fifth man was released in January — allegedly El-Hussein’s younger brother — and the charges against him have been dropped.

Bentow said he was troubled by the man’s release, and that he thought it was unlikely El-Hussein had been acting completely alone given widespread anti-Semitism in the immigrant community where he grew up.

“Of course there are others around him who also think (his actions are) a good idea, and who maybe do not dare to do the same as him, who offer help with what they can,” he said.

Observers say it could be difficult for the prosecution to apply Denmark’s terrorism law since it would have to prove that the four suspects knew about El-Hussein’s plans.

Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt speaks to journalists at a cultural center in Kanonhallen in Oesterbro, a district of Copenhagen, Denmark, where shots were fired during a debate on Islam and free speech on February 14, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/ Scanpix Denmark/Martin Sylvest)
Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt speaks to journalists at a cultural center in Kanonhallen in Oesterbro, a district of Copenhagen, Denmark, where shots were fired during a debate on Islam and free speech on February 14, 2015.
(photo credit: AFP/ Scanpix Denmark/Martin Sylvest)

A petty criminal known for his violent temper, El-Hussein was released from prison two weeks before the attacks, having served time for a stabbing.

On the day of the attacks, he reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group on Facebook, also posting a link to a video of a violent Islamist hymn.

Hundreds of people attended his Islamic burial outside Copenhagen. Some were known gang members, while others said they wanted to show support for the killer’s family.

Danish intelligence agency PET has been criticized for failing to act on information from prison services that El-Hussein was at risk of radicalization, and former classmates have claimed they tried to warn police as early as 2012.

Copenhagen politicians have since launched a plan partly inspired by the smaller city of Aarhus’ “soft-hands” approach to battling the radicalization of young Muslims with social techniques used in gang exit strategies.

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