Brussels Jewish Museum murders: Mehdi Nemmouche jailed for life

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A French-born jihadist, who spent a year fighting in Syria for the Islamic State (IS) group, has been given a life sentence for the murder of four people in an anti-Semitic attack in Belgium.

Mehdi Nemmouche, 33, opened fire with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a handgun at Brussels’ Jewish Museum in May 2014.

Three people died at the scene and one died later in hospital.

A man who helped plan the attack and provided the weapons, Nacer Bendrer, was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Nemmouche and Bendrer were found guilty last week after a two-month-long trial involved apparent witness intimidation and testimony from former captives of IS in Syria.

Bendrer, who is also French, told the court: “I am ashamed to have crossed paths with this guy [Nemmouche]. He is not a man, he is a monster.”

When asked to speak, Nemmouche reportedly said with a smirk: “Life goes on.”

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Nemmouche’s lawyers tried to suggest that he had been framed in an elaborate conspiracy which blamed the murders on foreign intelligence agencies. But they produced no evidence to support the claim.

Two Israeli tourists, a volunteer worker and a receptionist were killed in the attack on the museum.

Who is Mehdi Nemmouche?

He is believed by Belgian prosecutors to be the first European jihadist to return from war-torn Syria to carry out terror attacks in Europe.

He was born into a family of Algerian origin in the northern French town of Roubaix.

He was previously known to French authorities, having served five years in prison for robbery. He is said to have met Bendrer while in prison.

Both have been described as “radicalised” prisoners.

Nemmouche travelled to Syria in 2013 and stayed for one year, during which time he is believed to have fought for a jihadist group in the country’s civil war.

Investigators say that while there, he met Najim Laachraoui, who was a suicide bomber in the Brussels airport attack of March 2016, which killed 32 people.

Four French journalists held hostage in Syria say they were guarded by both Laachraoui and Nemmouche during their captivity.

Nemmouche was extradited to Belgium to face charges connected to the museum shooting, but may also face trial in France over the allegations he was involved in holding the French hostages.

What happened during the trial?

Security was tight, matching that of the trial of jailed jihadist Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving member of the 2015 Paris attackers.

Days after the trial began, a lawyer representing a witness reported his laptop and some paperwork on the case had been stolen from his office.

A baseball bat and replica gun were left in their place – something prosecutors viewed as a threat.

In the dock the next day, Nemmouche denounced the attempt at intimidation – and the witness, 81-year-old Chilean artist Clara Billeke Villalobos, went on to testify anyway.

Next came the orphaned daughters of Miriam and Emmanuel Riva, the Israeli tourists killed.

Ayalet, 19, and Shira, 21, described a mother “devoted to her family” and an unassuming father who “loved to travel”.

Three weeks into proceedings, jurors were shown video of Nemmouche in custody after his arrest.

Belgian newspaper Le Soir described it as showing an “arrogant” Nemmouche in front of police with a “disdainful smile”, arms folded.

Testimony from prisoners

Two of the French journalists held for nearly a year in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo appeared in court, pointing to Nemmouche as their captor.

Nicolas Henin told the court Nemmouche was “sadistic, playful and narcissistic”, while Didier Francois said he had beaten him dozens of times with a truncheon.

‘Ultra-radicalised’

Summing up, prosecutor Bernard Michel told the court Nemmouche was “not simply radicalised but ultra-radicalised”.

“If attacking a museum with a combat weapon is not violent and savage then nothing will ever be violent and savage,” he said.

“For the killer, for Mehdi Nemmouche, the identity of the victims mattered little,” he added.

“The aim was simply that there should be victims. Everything was premeditated.”

‘Lebanese-Iranian-Israeli plot’

The closing argument from the defence was described by some as “mind-boggling”, as it wove a web of conspiracy involving foreign intelligence agencies and assassination.

Sebastien Courtoy, Nemmouche’s lawyer, suggested that his client was recruited in Lebanon in January 2013 by Iranian or Lebanese intelligence to join the ranks of IS. But this claim went unsubstantiated.

According to Mr Courtoy, the Jewish Museum murders were not an IS attack, but a “targeted execution of Mossad agents” – a reference to the Israeli intelligence agency, which he claimed the Israeli couple belonged to. The killing was carried out by an unknown person, he said.

Yet judges investigating the museum attack last month told the court there was no evidence to support any link to Mossad.

At one pointed the defence even argued that Nemmouche could not be considered anti-Semitic because he wore Calvin Klein shoes – an apparent reference to Mr Klein’s Jewish heritage.

A lawyer representing a committee of Jewish organisations called that observation “mind-boggling and incoherent”.

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