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Belgium jails jihadist recruiters for Syria – Albanian court sentences 9, including 3 Muslim clerics

BRUSSELS, May 4, (Agencies): A Brussels court on Tuesday handed jail terms of up to seven years to 26 members of a group that recruited fighters for Syria and had included one of the suicide bombers responsible for the March 22 attacks in the Belgian capital. The trial, which was held in February, concerned suspected jihadists who left Belgium for Syria between 2012 and 2014.

The accused were seen as participating in the activities of a terrorist group to varying degrees. They received prison sentences from eight months to seven years, some which were suspended, the Belga news agency reported. The prosecution had sought jail sentences up to 15 years for some of the accused.

Convicted posthumously was Najim Laachraoui, one of the two suicide bombers who killed 16 people at Brussels airport on March 22, while another 16 perished in an attack the same day on the city’s metro. Laachraoui who had left for Syria in early 2013 to fight with the Islamic State (IS) group was also suspected of being the bombmaker for the Paris attacks in November that left 130 dead.

Four of the total 30 accused were released, including Mohamed Ben Ajiba, an imam in Brussels. At the opening of the trial on Feb 15, the defendant considered by prosecutors as the main recruiter of jihadists in Belgium, Khalid Zerkani, had his case separated from the others. He is currently in custody and expected to appear in court on May 18.

An Albanian court sentenced nine defendants, including three Muslim clerics, to jail sentences of up to 18 years on Tuesday for recruiting people to fight in Syria’s civil war. The sentencing marked the end of a two-year trial that has underlined concerns about radicalisation among Muslims in Albania and other Balkan countries and has been closely followed by Tirana’s NATO ally the United States.

A small number of Albanians in the majority-Muslim ex-communist state have in recent years come under the influence of radical preachers, usually foreigners or Albanians who received their training abroad. The nine defendants refused to stand when Judge Liljana Baku read out their sentence, just as they have done throughout their trial, saying they recognised only the will of Allah.

The three clerics, Bujar Hysa, Genci Balla and Gert Pashja, were found guilty of recruiting people for terrorist purposes, inciting hatred and making public calls for terrorist acts, and were sentenced respectively to 18, 17 and 17 years in a high-security jail. They had preached in mosques not controlled by the official Muslim Committee and are believed to have recruited most of the 100 or so Albanians estimated to have travelled to Syria, some with their families, to fight alongside militant groups.

The other six defendants were found guilty of the same charges but sentenced to shorter terms in jail. Cries of “Allahu Akbar” rang out in the chamber when the judge read out the first sentence but quickly fell silent when she threatened to expel them from the courtroom. “You are prisoners, not them,” one man with a long red beard shouted at police and journalists in the courtroom. About 60 percent of Albanians are Muslims and traditionally follow a tolerant version of the faith, co-existing peacefully with their Christian neighbours.

A Tajik lawyer who represented members of a banned Islamist party went on trial on Tuesday in a case criticised by human rights groups as part of the government’s crackdown on dissent and basic freedoms. Human rights lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov was detained last October, after a court banned the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party whose members he had represented, and has since been charged with fraud and extremism.

Yorov has dismissed the charges against him as politically motivated and rights groups such as Human Rights Watch have said they appeared to be trumped-up and that the move threatened the legal profession in general in the Central Asian nation. Yorov’s own lawyer, Rustam Khakimov, told reporters the hearings began in Dushanbe on Tuesday behind closed doors.

President Imomali Rakhmon’s government has accused the Islamist party of being behind a failed coup last September led by a deputy defence minister who then died in a fi ght with government troops. Several party leaders and members are now on trial on charges related to the coup.

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