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First Swiss al-Qaeda trial gets underway

The trial is taking place in Lugano Keystone

Seven defendants accused of supporting terrorist activities associated with al-Qaeda have appeared in court in Lugano.

This content was published on January 22, 2007 - 08:01

It is the first trial of its kind in Switzerland but experts have pointed out the dearth of evidence in the case.

A total of seven people from Yemen, Iraq and Somalia have to answer to the federal criminal court. All stand accused of being part of a criminal organisation run by a 59-year-old Yemeni, who is the principal defendant.

Two are accused of maintaining contact with the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

According to the charges laid out by the federal prosecutor, the principal defendant offered to procure a passport for the al-Qaeda terrorist Abdullah el Rimi, who was involved in the attacks on the USS Cole in 2000 and in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh in 2003.

The group are also believed to have smuggled several dozen Yemenis into Switzerland between 1998 and 2004.

The head of the "holy warriors' travel agency" – as a Swiss newspaper put it – is said to have bribed the Swiss honorary consul in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, in a bid to obtain the necessary visas and facilitate entry into Switzerland.

Accusations

Once in Switzerland, the people who had been smuggled in applied for asylum under false names and with false Somali identity papers, according to the prosecution.

The price for being smuggled in was said to be up to $4,000 (SFr5,000). As a result, the criminal organisation is alleged to have amassed a considerable sum.

The list of the alleged crimes is long – from belonging to and supporting a criminal organisation, aiding and abetting, and attempted aiding and abetting to forging Swiss and foreign documents.

There are also accusations of forging Swiss and foreign identity papers, bribing Swiss and foreign officials, circulating fake money, deceit, receiving stolen goods, and violating Swiss residency laws.

Lack of evidence

It is the first trial of its kind for the federal prosecutor.

But after several failures and the resignation of federal prosecutor Valentin Roschacher last July, the authorities are under pressure to get a result – not least because the total cost of the trial is estimated at SFr1 million.

What's more, some lawyers have already criticised the lack of evidence, which largely consists of SMS messages and telephone calls.

Reports say deputy prosecutor Claude Nicati, who is replacing Roschacher, suffered a serious setback ahead of the trial.

The judges have refused to admit a Belgian policeman and a former private detective as experts to testify because they are apparently considered irrelevant to the case.

It is not clear whether the defendants will appear in court. They were arrested in January 2004, but were released on bail. The trial, led by Bernard Bertossa, is expected to last five days and is taking place in Lugano.

The authorities say the facilities of the new federal criminal court in Bellinzona are not suited for the trial.

swissinfo, Gerhard Lob in Bellinzona

Key facts

35 people, including a Swiss, died in the attack in Riyadh, in May 2003.
Ten people were arrested in Switzerland in January 2004 and detained for up to 15 months.
Seven seven defendants, aged between 24 and 59, come from Yemen, Iraq and Somalia.
The main defendant, who has been living in Switzerland since 2001, denies the allegations.

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Terrorism trials

Three other cases of suspected Islamic terrorism are pending.

A Saudi Arabian businessman, Y.K., is alleged to have transferred millions from his Swiss bank account to people belonging to al-Qaeda. The case has been with the investigating judge since June 2005.

A preliminary inquiry was opened last September into several people of North Africa origin, arrested in Switzerland and accused of theft in connection with a planned terrorist attack on an Israeli aircraft.

A third case focuses on a suspect, born in Morocco, who allegedly used the internet to call for terrorist attacks. The authorities say they will bring charges against the woman in the next few weeks.

The case of the Egyptian businessman, Youssef Nada, and his al-Taqwa bank was dropped due to a lack of evidence. He was suspected of supporting terrorism. Nada is still on the UN list of terrorist suspects and is under house arrest in Campione d'Italia.

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