BRUSSELS—French jihadist Mehdi Nemmouche was sentenced to life in jail late on Monday for the antisemitic terrorist attack at the Jewish musuem in Brussels which left dead four people in May 2014.
Families of the victims and the Jewish community or Belgium voiced relief at the end of a two-month-long jury trial dogged by controversy over what they denounced as conspiracy theories put forward by Nemmouche’s defence lawyers.
Nemmouche, 33, told the court “life goes on” in his last words to the jury ahead of its final deliberation on the length of his penalty on Monday.
The 12-person jury convicted Nacer Bendrer to 15 years in prison for acting as an accomplice to Nemmouche. He provided the weapon used in the shooting which killed in less than 90 seconds two Israeli tourists, Miriam and Emmanuel Riva, a volunteer worker, Dominique Sabrier, and a museum employee Alexandre Strens, at the Jewish Museum located in the center of Brussels, close to the Great Synagogue.
Nemmouche coldly shoot them with a handgun and a Kalashnikov rifle with what one paramedic who attended the scene called “surgical” precision.
In final words, Prosecutor Yves Moreau called on the jury to hand down a tough sentence: “He will get out of jail and he’ll go on another crusade and start killing again,” he said.
“Mr Nemmouche, you are just a coward, you kill people by shooting them from behind, you kill old women by shooting them with an assault rifle, you kill because it gives you pleasure to kill,” he said.
Urging the jury to take a firm line, Moreau said: “If you say that in Belgium one can be a terrorist without being punished very severely, then we must not be surprised to see people arrive in this country with bombs or assault rifles in their suitcases.”
Nemmouche, who staged the attack after coming back from Syria where he fought with the Islamic State terror group, is also facing charges in France over his role in holding hostage journalists in Syria.
During the trial, two French journalists testified that they remembered Nemmouche as a deeply anti-Semitic, sadistic and full of hatred.
The court also heard the testimony of the orphaned daughters of Miriam and Emmanuel Riva, tourists from Israel who were killed in the attack. The couple had been celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary.
Ayalet, 19, and Shira, 21, described a mother “devoted to her family” and an unassuming father who “loved to travel”.
“Their childhood has been stolen from them,” one of their lawyers told the court, “as they have been forced to grow up prematurely.”
“May the name of this terrorist be forgotten, and may we only remember the verdict and the resilience of our democratic institutions, our community, and the Belgian population,’’ stated Yohan Benizri after the verdict of the popular jury was announced.
He added : “I can only strongly condemn and regret that some Belgian lawyers, which my education prevent me from accurately describing, attempted to shake our values by bringing disgraceful theories in front of our highest criminal court. The same lawyers will continue to criticize our justice system because they lost so dramatically. But nothing should derail us from our relentless fight for our values.”
During the three month trial, Sebastian 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 by anything concrete.
According to Courtoy, the murder was 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.
Prosecutor Yves Moreau said the defence arguments were “complete nonsense” and they should “stop the joking”.
Courtoy and the other Nemmouche lawyer,Henri Laquay, are controversial personalities who have in the past represented antisemitic and Holocaust denier comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala..
‘’The defense system used by Nemmouche corresponds to his antisemitism,’’ said Michèle Hirsch, lawyer representing CCOJB, the umbrella group of Belgian Jewish organisations, which was a civil party in the trial.
She said she was ”proud of Belgium’s justice.”