German Terror Trial Begins

German police officer guarding parking garage of Frankfurt courthouse for terror trial. 020416, GD REUTERS

The trial of five Algerian men charged with plotting to blow up a French holiday market opened with a flourish Tuesday when a defendant disrupted the proceedings and was removed from court.

While the other defendants shielded their faces from a TV camera allowed to tape the opening five minutes, 31-year-old defendant Lamine Maroni, speaking in Arabic, recited verses from the Koran, swore and urged the others not to testify.

He was warned not to continue, but went on in English and German, motioning to the court. "You're all Jews. I don't need them. I don't need the court. My god is my defender."

As he was led out, Maroni said "You want to kill me, baby, don't you?"

The five men are accused of planning an attack on New Year's Eve 2000 in Strasbourg, France, with the intent to murder, belonging to a terrorist organization, falsifying documents and weapons violations. Federal prosecutors say the Algerians have already entered their pleas, but no details have been released for security reasons.

If found guilty, they could face up to 10 years in prison.

The men on trial in Frankfurt are not accused of being involved in the September 11 attacks. But investigators hope the trial, taking place under maximum security in a court in Frankfurt's city canter, will shed light on how al Qaeda works.

Germany Tuesday arrested a man believed to have been involved in last Thursday's attack on a synagogue in Tunisia in which 16 people died, including 10 Germans.

After Maroni was removed, the court read from the 150-page indictment. The defendants were also expected to publicly enter please.

Prosecutors expect the trial, which could last at least a year, will establish the extend and goals of al Qaeda's European network.

Germany became a focus of the investigation into al Qaeda after it emerged that three of the hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 had studied for years in the northern city of Hamburg.

Responding to fears of reprisals by members of Osama bin Laden's worldwide terror network, authorities have enacted some of the tightest security measures for a trial ever at the district court in downtown Frankfurt — including surveillance cameras, extra screening and roadblocks around the courthouse controlled by armed police officers.

The defendants attempted unsuccessfully to block the TV cameras, and took the precaution of wearing masks over their eyes for the drive from prison near Darmstadt, 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Frankfurt, to the court. The defendants traveled in separate unmarked cars with police officers wearing protective gear, escorted by police cars.

Information from other European law enforcement agencies, including cell phone conversations picked up by Italian authorities, led to the arrests of four suspects in December 2000 and a fifth the following April.

Transcripts of those cell phone conversations indicate that the suspects were in contact with other suspected terrorists operating near Milan last October.

The report by Italian anti-terrorist police identified the suspects by their full names of Aeurobi Beandalis, 26, Fouhad Sabour, 37, Salim Boukari, 30, Lamine Maroni, 31, and Samir Karimou, 33.

However, Italian authorities said only Fouhad Sabour's identity had been verified and the others were possibly aliases.

According to Cornelius Nestler, a law professor in Cologne, such transcripts could be crucial in helping the prosecution prove that the defendants belonged to a terrorist organization.

Under German law, prosecutors must either present testimony from another member of the organization, or evidence of specific plans to carry out a crime, either from files, correspondence or tapped phone conversations.

"If they don't have anything of this nature and none of the accused say anything about it, then it will be difficult to prove they were a terrorist organization," Nestler said.

In this case, only one of the defendants, Beandalis, has agreed to testify, and his lawyer, Achim Groepper, has declined to specify what he will say.

The German indictment said the men had trained in Afghanistan. The Italian document goes further, saying the camps were run by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

It was at the camps where the suspects are believed to have received training in constructing homemade explosives, extensive material for which was confiscated during the arrest, the Italian report said.

During a search of two Frankfurt apartments at the time of the initial arrests, authorities seized 44 pounds of a chemical that can be used to manufacture explosives, as well as homemade detonators, a hand grenade, submachine guns, dismantled rifles, revolvers and ammunition.

The Italian report said they also found detailed handwritten instructions for making and use of the explosives and instructions on the use of toxic substances in lethal doses.

Further investigations also turned up information indicating that Boukari and Sabour had rented an apartment in the southwestern German city of Baden-Baden, 60 kilometers (40 miles) from Strasbourg, for days surrounding the planned attack.

A videotape showing Christmas market in front of the cathedral in Strasbourg and a busy square in the center of town also found in the Baden-Baden searches led authorities to establish what they believe to be the intended target.
  • Lloyd Vries

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