'How Can Our Client Be an anti-Semite? He Has Calvin Klein Shoes'

Lawyers shock court in defending suspect in 2014 Jewish museum attack in Brussels

Shlomo Papirblat
Shlomo Papirblat
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An illustration of Mehdi Nemmouche, suspected of perpetrating a terror attack at the Jewish Museum of Belgium on May 14, 2014, at his trial at the Justice Palace in Brussels, February 2019
Artist's rendering of suspect Nemmouche, at his trial. He has kept silent in the courtroom, just as he did when being questioned by Belgian police.Credit: AP
Shlomo Papirblat
Shlomo Papirblat

Although the trial of Mehdi Nemmouche – accused of perpetrating the terror attack at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels in May 2014 – has been going on for almost two months now, only a few days ago was the defense asked to present its case.

Nemmouche, the French-born 33-year-old of Algerian descent, is a supporter of the Islamic State who fought in the Syrian civil war and returned to Europe. He is accused of entering the unguarded vestibule of the museum with an assault rifle and a handgun, and opening fire, killing Miriam and Emanuel Riva, tourists from Israel, Belgian museum employee Alexandre Strens and a French volunteer Dominique Sabrier.

The Belgian Jewish community and others following the case already had some notion of the character of Nemmouche’s lawyers, Sébastien Courtoy and Henri Laquay. But it turns out that the two of them were still able to surprise observers and jurists alike, and turn their courtroom sessions into a grotesque performance.

Evidence submitted at the trial in the Brussels Justice Palace of suspect Mehdi Nemmouche, on February 25.Credit: Christophe Licoppe/AP

For eight hours during one recent session at the Brussels Justice Palace, Courtoy laid out his arguments, striving to persuade the court that Nemmouche was innocent of any crime, was either "trapped" and a victim of a plot or of a monumental mistake, and that “another man” had committed the act.

More than once Courtoy’s declarations elicited angry murmurs from the courtroom. “How can it be said that our client is an anti-Semite? After all, we found that he has Calvin Klein shoes” (apparently a reference to the fact that the fashion designer is Jewish), he said. The lawyer also argued that an attack on a Jewish museum is not an anti-Semitic act per se: “It would be as if we said that an attack on an African history museum in Brussels is a racist act,” he said, on another occasion.

Since January the prosecution has put police investigators and expert witnesses on the stand who have described in detail Nemmouche’s alleged actions before and after the attack, on May 24, 2014. He is being tried by a 12-person jury along with French-born Nacer Bendrer, 30, a criminal from Marseilles who is thought to have supplied the weapons Nemmouche used.

Among the exhibits presented to the court were the murder weapon, found in the suspect's possession, as well as the clothes he was wearing during the attack, according to footage from the Jewish Museum's security cameras. Also among the evidence was proof that he had looked up information about the museum on the internet.

But for the defense, everything seemed to be proof that the charges against their client were the fruit of a conspiracy and false evidence manufactured by police investigators and other "anonymous” sources. Indeed, according to Courtoy and Laquay, all this was a cover for the fact that the whole case was a police plot to bury the truth – and the truth is that the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels was a “settling of accounts between espionage agencies”: The Rivas, the lawyers claimed, were “former Mossad agents,” and so this was not a terror attack at all.

Security barriers outside the Brussels Justice Palace, during the trial of Nemmouche, in February.Credit: Shlomo Papirblat

According to the defense, the fact that ISIS did not claim responsibility for the attack at the museum, as it did after the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris, is further proof that Nemmouche is innocent.

Following are some quotes from the suspect's lawyers, which are not easy to stomach and even cast blame on Miriam and Emanuel Riva for their own deaths:

“We found that a few months before the murder they [the Rivas] were in Berlin. That doesn’t make them criminals, but it is known that this is the place where the Israeli espionage services send their people in Europe... Journalists can’t discuss this because they will be harassed... You will agree that the matter of the Mossad makes the couple less sympathetic... When they die, they are given respect by the chief rabbi. I, if something happens to me, am not sure I will get the same treatment by the archbishop...

"[Moreover, Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu accords respect to Emanuel Riva! On his internet site, he wrote: ‘a great patriot.’ So you and I can keep talking about [Ms. Riva] as just an accountant [for the Mossad].”

One of the prosecution's witnesses was journalist Nicolas Hénin, who had been a prisoner of ISIS in Aleppo and clearly identified Nemmouche as one of his captors. “He is a sadist who tortured me and my friends,” he testified.

Belgian lawyer Henri Laquay, who is representing Mehdi Nemmouche, on February 25. The Rivas, he claimed, were “former Mossad agents,” and so this was not a terror attack.Credit: Christophe Licoppe/AP

Courtoy's response: Hénin is “an expert in lies and collaborator with the French espionage services.” The lawyer added, “Call me a Nazi, call me a conspirator [theorist] whatever you want, but look: I am not the man who is manipulating the truth."

Nemmouche has kept silent in the courtroom, just as he did when being questioned by Belgian police. His lawyers hint that the reason for this is because the suspect had cooperated with the “Lebanese-Iranian espionage services.” That is the basis for their theory that “another man” committed the murders.

“This man entered the apartment where Nemmouche lived in Brussels before the act, and planted various incriminating evidence. This man is the one who made the ‘incriminating’ searches on Nemmouche’s computer... This is the man from the organization responsible for the murders. In the end he framed Nemmouche,” according to the defense.

Among the many journalists sitting in the courtroom and listening in shock to Courtoy was Willy Le Devin of the French newspaper Liberation. His report on the trial at the end of last week began with a question: “While thousands of people gathered in Paris 10 days ago to fight anti-Semitism, lawyers defended, a few hundred kilometers away, a chemically pure conspiracy theory in a court of law. Would they have been allowed [to do this] if the victims of the attack in this case were not Jews?"

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