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Belgium Islamist ‘no different to Pussy Riot,’ trial hears

Fouad Belkacem is on trial in the Belgian city of Antwerp with 45 others, most still at large

Published: Updated:

A hardline Islamist accused of inspiring dozens of young Belgians to fight “jihad” in Syria is no different from feminist activists Femen and Pussy Riot, his lawyer said on Wednesday.

Fouad Belkacem is on trial in the Belgian city of Antwerp with 45 others, most still at large, for suspected membership of a group believed to be sending jihadist fighters to Syria.

A Salafist ideologue known for his virulent street sermons and online videos, Belkacem is accused of leading Sharia4Belgium, the radical group that was officially dissolved two years ago, but is accused of still actively recruiting fighters.

“His only goal was to provoke, just like Femen and Pussy Riot,” Belkacem's lawyer John Maes was quoted as saying by Belga news agency.

Members of the Femen feminist movement have staged several bare-breasted protests around the world, while punk band Pussy Riot were jailed by Russia in 2012 for a protest against President Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s Orthodox cathedral.

“He is not responsible for the departures of these young fighters to Syria, nor the crimes they have committed there,” Maes said of Belkacem.

Armed police have guarded the court in the northern port city where nine of those alleged to be part of Sharia4Belgium, including Belkacem, are being tried on charges of leading a terrorist organization.

Prosecutors have called for a 15-year jail sentence for the 32-year-old Belkacem.

They allege Sharia4Belgium is responsible for ten percent of the 300 to 400 fighters who have left the country for Syria.

Only nine of the defendants are present in Belgium with those at large believed to be in Syria where some of them may have been killed.

Investigators said Belkacem never travelled to Syria, unlike most of the members of the group, but he was the "catalyst" who prompted many to go and fight there.

The trial comes five months after a deadly attack on the Jewish museum in the centre of Brussels raised fears of a resurgence of anti-Semitic violence in Europe and of terror strikes from foreign fighters returning from Syria.

Belgium reportedly has the highest number of “jihadists” per capita of any European country.

The EU has said that more than 3,000 of its citizens are thought to have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight with Islamist groups.