Court finds three Iraqis guilty of Islamic State support

Some of the accused in the courtroom in Bellinzona in 2016 via a sketch artist Keystone

Three of four Iraqi citizens on trial for planning a terror attack in Switzerland as part of the Islamic State group have been found guilty of supporting a criminal organisation at the Federal Criminal Court on Friday.

This content was published on March 18, 2016 - 12:04 and agencies

It was the first time a guilty verdict had been pronounced in Switzerland related to Islamic State activities. The three individuals found guilty were all sentenced to prison terms, the longest of which will last four years and eight months.  

The judges ruled that the three guilty Iraqis had been trying to bring information, materials and personnel into Switzerland necessary for carrying out an attack. An attack plan had been "clearly initialised" according to the federal prosecutor. However, the court ruled that this did not necessarily constitute a terrorist activity.

In reading the ruling, one judge said it was “highly reprehensible” that the guilty individuals sought to attack a country that was supporting them with its social services.

Following the sentencing, Swiss Federal Prosecutor Michael Lauber said he was “pleased” by the outcome and noted that international cooperation – particularly an “operative agreement” with the United States – had been key to securing the verdict.

Arrests made during attack plan

Swiss authorities arrested three of the individuals in northeastern Switzerland in April 2014, and detained the fourth in July 2015. They were charged by the Swiss Attorney General’s office, which had received a tip-off from foreign intelligence sources that they were planning an attack on Swiss soil.

The 69-page indictment said the accused formed contacts with ISIS leaders outside Switzerland, specifically in Syria. It documented Facebook messages, which allegedly contain coded messages. “Baking bread” meant making explosive devices, “watermelons” referred to explosives and weapons while “bridegrooms” stood for suicide bombers, the prosecution stated. On Friday, the court ruled that those messages could be considered a call to arms in support of the Islamic State, even if the words themselves were not of a violent nature.

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper reported early in the trial that the prosecution could have a difficult time making the case that the accused were planning a specific attack, since authorities arrested them quickly in order to hedge risks to the public. The federal prosecutor in the case told the paper that the arrests had perhaps not been made at the optimal time for strengthening the prosecution’s case but that she had no doubt that those on trial had reached the point where they were going to carry out an attack. Lauber also highlighted the dilemma of when to make arrests in his statements on Friday.

Connections to Islamic State

The alleged ringleader of the group, Osamah M, is thought to have joined IS in 2004 and spent time in Syria before being granted asylum in Switzerland in 2012, posing as a civilian victim of the Syrian conflict. The wheelchair-bound man then lived in Beringen, canton Schaffhausen, attending a paraplegic centre in Nottwil for treatment on his wounds.

He has been dubbed the “Wheelchair Bomber” by the Swiss media and is said to have helped arrange asylum in Switzerland for two other IS members who were stationed in Damascus.

Osamah M. was sentenced to a prison term of four years and eight months on Friday. He indicated following the trial that he would “very likely” appeal the sentence, which he found too harsh. The federal prosecutor had argued for a sentence of 7.5 years.

Another suspect, Abdulrahman O., was an imam based in Hergiswil, canton Nidwalden, who is also said to have preached in St Gallen. He was accused of travelling to Syria to deliver radio equipment to IS contacts. However, he was acquitted of all charges on Friday.

The other two individuals are believed to have worked as Islamic State traffickers, helping recruit smugglers, plan routes and raise money for the organisation. One of them stood accused of having uploaded violent videos to Facebook of people being killed and maimed and glorifying those actions on the social media platform. He received a sentence of 3.5 years in prison, while the third individual found guilty will go to prison for four years and eight months for having tried to establish an Islamic State cell in Switzerland.

The men who stood trial are all between 29 and 34 years old. Those found guilty on Friday have the right to appeal the verdict to the Federal Criminal Court. The time they have already spent behind bars will be subtracted from the prison terms handed down on Friday.

The trial at the Federal Criminal Court in Canton Ticino began on February 29 and took place under tight security conditions, with parts of Bellinzona closed off to the public.

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