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Lawyers for Jewish museum attack suspect say their client was 'set up'

Benoît Peyrucq, AFP file photo | A court drawing shows Mehdi Nemmouche at a hearing in Versailles, France on June 26, 2014.

Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche, the main suspect in the deadly 2014 attack on a Brussels Jewish museum, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday. His lawyers say they have proof their client was set up by Israeli intelligence, backed by Belgian police.

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Tuesday was D-Day for Mehdi Nemmouche, the main suspect in the attack on the Belgian Jewish museum in Brussels almost five years ago.

The 33-year-old alleged jihadist, who stands accused of murdering two Israeli tourists, a French volunteer and a Belgian museum receptionist on May 24, 2014, was due to speak for the first time in court along with his co-defendant, Nacer Bendrer.

The victims have been waiting for years to hear what Nemmouche had to say – but since his arrest, he has exercised his right to remain silent. After a long day of waiting as legal procedures were followed and a juror was expelled, the accused pleaded not guilty and then said he chose not to speak for the moment.

“I don’t have the means to defend myself,” Nemmouche told the presiding judge, Laurence Massart. “We’ve asked for 150 witnesses and you’ve rejected many from that list. The people who could have backed my version of events won’t be here, so I won’t speak for the time being.”

“What do you mean when you say, ‘for the time being’?” asked the judge. “This is the time to talk. Your lawyers can’t testify for you.”

Nemmouche’s refusal was largely expected, as was the line of defence his lawyers laid out. They argued their client was set up by Israeli intelligence, backed by Belgian police.

“We will reveal how and why they did this later in the trial,” said lawyer Henri Laquay.

>> Read more: Nemmouche’s hometown of Roubaix tries to shake its reputation as a 'jihadist breeding ground'

Nemmouche was intercepted in Marseille on a bus traveling from Brussels, with a handgun and an automatic rifle, six days after the museum attack. Prosecutors revealed last week that his DNA and fingerprints were on the murder weapons, which were exhibited in a glass box in court.

Co-defendant Bendrer said Nemmouche had asked him to supply the weapons.

Investigators found gunpowder on Nemmouche’s jacket and recordings of a man claiming responsibility for the killings on his laptop.

Defence lawyer Laquay had told journalists about their strategy before introducing it in court. Laquay maintains the Israeli couple that were killed were not tourists but actually members of Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad.

“Emanuel and Myriam Riva had worked for Mossad. The lawyers representing their families have already revealed this. Israeli intelligence set up Mehdi Nemmouche. He wasn’t in the Jewish museum during the shooting,” Laquay told FRANCE 24, declining to detail the “scientific” evidence he says he has to support his claims.

'No fingerprints'

In court, Laquay revealed his main evidence: Nemmouche’s DNA and fingerprints were not on the museum’s main door.

“On the CCTV footage we can see the killer touching and pushing that door three times and he wasn’t wearing gloves, yet his prints are not there!” Laquay said, acting out for the jury how the killer repeatedly pushed the door.

“A lot of different DNA samples were found on that door but not the defendant’s. The real killer’s DNA is on the door. Mehdi Nemmouche is innocent.”

Lawyer Christophe Marchand who is representing UNIA, an organisation fighting discrimination said that although the suspect’s DNA was not found on the door, other experts have said some incomplete DNA samples that were found could be his.

"The defence is manipulating the facts. They'll do it over and over again throughout the trial," Marchand said.

The defence said Nemmouche’s fingerprints were also not found on the trigger of a gun used to kill three of the victims. And they accused police investigators of doctoring a picture of the killer.

“CCTV footage shows the killer was wearing sunglasses, but in the picture he wasn’t,” said Laquay. “Police used a computer programme to Photoshop the picture.”

Another of Nemmouche’s lawyers, Sebastien Courtoy, also accused police of doctoring evidence.

“We can’t assume any of their evidence is real,” he said.

The lawyers said they have other proof that their client is innocent. “We won’t give it to you now, however, because we suspect police investigators scheduled to testify in court would change their testimony to disqualify our evidence.”

The strategy of Nemmouche’s lawyers is a departure from his co-defendant’s. Bendrer, accused of supplying the handgun and automatic rifle used in the killings, said Nemmouche asked him for weapons but that he failed to find any.

“Bendrer has made an agreement with the prosecution to accuse Nemmouche," said Laquay. "And in exchange he will be cleared in a separate murder trial.”

Bendrer’s own lawyers later denied those claims.

Sitting in the front row in the public section, museum director Philippe Blondin listened to the attorneys, sketched the accused and reflected on the trial.

“That’s the way things are carried out in a courthouse,” Blondin told FRANCE 24. “Everyone is allowed to make the arguments that work best for them. The defence pursued a couple of issues and ignored the bigger, more significant evidence. It repeated twenty times that he was innocent. They’re trying to influence the jury. We can’t get emotional about these theories.”

But Jewish community leaders said they were shaken by the strategy.

“It’s one thing to try and defend their client, which is their job, but they don’t just say he’s innocent, they accuse other people. They accuse Mossad, they say it’s all a conspiracy,” said Jonathan De Lathouwer, vice president of the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organisations in Belgium.

“Defence lawyers, even in a terrorism trial, can remain dignified. But they are being irresponsible. Talking about such conspiracies at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise is dangerous.”

Meanwhile, museum lawyer Adrien Masset said the strategy is unlikely to convince the jury.

“It’s a classic strategy known as ‘sausage cutting’. A butcher has a bad sausage so he cuts it into pieces and finds two that are not so bad. He shows those and says they prove the whole sausage is good,” said Masset.

“That never works. Someone else always proves the sausage has gone bad.”

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