BRUSSELS (AFP) — The Frenchman on trial accused of murdering four people at the Jewish museum of Belgium denied Tuesday he was the gunman and alleged the court had robbed him of defense witnesses.
Asked by the judge whether he accepted the evidence linking him to the Brussels attack, Mehdi Nemmouche said: “No.”
But he admitted he had been arrested six days later in possession of firearms — a revolver and a Kalashnikov — of the type used in the May 14, 2014, shooting spree.
Nevertheless, he complained that the judge had rejected testimony from witnesses who “could have given a reading of the case at the polar opposite of the federal prosecutors.”
And he told jurors he would not speak further to address the charges, leaving his defense to his legal team.
In laying out their strategy, his lawyers said Nemmouche was innocent and one suggested he was a victim of a murky Israeli plot — a tactic that Jewish groups had warned against.
“Mehdi Nemmouche is not the killer,” lawyer Henri Laquay told the Brussels criminal court. “He did not squeeze the trigger.”
Laquay urged the 12-person jury to acquit Nemmouche.
Both Nemmouche and Nacer Bendrer, a fellow Frenchman aged 30 who allegedly supplied the weapons, face life in prison if convicted of charges of terrorist murder.
Investigators said Nemmouche was the gunman and attacked the museum shortly after returning from Syria, where he had fought on behalf of jihadist groups.
Defense points finger at Mossad
Defense lawyer Virginie Taelman alleged that an image taken from surveillance footage had been manipulated and that this, plus the attitude of prosecutors, could suggest the murders were “not an attack by the Islamic State but a targeted execution by Mossad agents,” referring to Israel’s intelligence service.
Jewish community leaders attending the trial earlier voiced fear the defense will deflect attention from the anti-Semitic nature of the attacks.
Firing a pistol and then an assault rifle, investigators say, the gunman killed two Israeli tourists, a French volunteer and a Belgian receptionist at the Jewish Museum.
Six days after the attack, Nemmouche — born to a family of Algerian origin in the northern French town of Roubaix — was arrested in the southern French port city of Marseille, where he arrived on a bus from Brussels.
Investigators say he was carrying a handgun and an assault rifle of the types used in the shooting — something Nemmouche confirmed in court.
But Laquay said Nemmouche’s DNA was not found on the handle of the entrance door to the museum, even though security camera footage shows the killer “strongly and violently” grabbing it.
He said investigators took 12 DNA samples from the door handle just three days after the shooting, but none has been linked to Nemmouche.
“It’s not him who put his hand on the door during the killing,” Laquay said.
‘Not hold water’
Nor did Nemmouche show any resistance during his arrest in Marseille, he added.
A prosecutor told the court last week that investigators lifted Nemmouche’s fingerprints from the barrel of the pistol he used in the museum attack.
The prosecutor added they also found his DNA on a Kalashnikov rifle, the second weapon used.
Both were found in Nemmouche’s possession when he was arrested in Marseille, investigators say.
The prosecutor added that investigators found gunpowder residue on a blue jacket among his belongings, the prosecutor said. The museum shooter was seen wearing a similar jacket.
Adrien Masset, a lawyer representing the Jewish Museum, said the defense team’s plans to argue the attack was an Israeli plot “absolutely did not hold water.”
Belgian Jewish leader Yohan Benizri told AFP earlier this month he feared that Nemmouche’s lawyers would try to “play down” the attack’s anti-Semitic nature.
The defense team, Benizri added, may even try to “twist” the facts by repeating “totally far-fetched” claims that 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 Organisations.