The trial of Mehdi Nemmouche, accused of the attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels in May 2014 in which four people were shot dead, this week heard from a number of witnesses who testified that Nemmouche had taken part in atrocities while fighting in Syria on the side of Islamist extremists. Four hostages of the extremist group, all four of them French journalists, have given statements to the investigation into the museum attack; two of them came to Brussels for Nemmouche’s trial. The court read out sworn statements given by the other two former hostages to detectives in France.
Nicolas Henin was taken hostage with three colleagues in Syria by the group, linked to Islamic State, in June 2013 and released in April 2014. When the attack on the Jewish museum took place a month later, Henin contacted the French intelligence service DGSI and enquired whether the man shown in police photos here as the attack suspect could possibly be the man known as Abu Omar, one of their jailers in Syria, otherwise known as Mehdi Nemmouche.
Together with colleague Didier François, Henin was later shown a video of a man claiming responsibility for the attack, which the prosecution says was Nemmouche, but which the defendant denies. Both Henin and François identified the man shown as their jailer, known to them as Abu Omar.
Identifying someone from photographs is difficult, they agreed. But the video left them in no doubt. “The voice, the way of speaking and the stance of a person says a lot more,” François told the court. “But when we saw the video, I recognised him clearly.”
“I have no doubt at all that Mehdi Nemmouche, who is present here in court, was my jailer and torturer in Syria, under the name of Abu Omar,” Henin said.
“Nemmouche had a playful side,” Henin recounted. “But it came to the surface only in his most violent moments.” And he told of how the jailers pretended to murder a Danish hostage who had in fact been knocked unconscious with chloroform; how they entered the cell with a sword and ordered the hostages to kneel to be beheaded, before departing laughing; and how they announced a feast day on 11 September 2013, before announcing the hostages would not be fed that day.”
Having given evidence and described Nemmouche as “sadistic and narcissistic,” Henin appealed to the presiding judge to be allowed to address Nemmouche. And he asked for news of the fate of two Arab journalists working for Sky News, who had been held during the same period as their French colleagues.
“They received a very different treatment from us,” he said. “We regularly heard Nemmouche talking to them. I can tell Mr. Nemmouche that we have been in contact with the families of the two journalists since our release. Anything we could tell us of what has become of them would bring some relief to the families. They have been living for five years without news, and with intolerable stress.”
As he has throughout most of the trial so far, Nemmouche remained silent.