ROTTERDAM, Netherlands – Prosecutors on Monday launched their case against 12 alleged Muslim extremists accused of plotting to derail the country’s democracy by murdering prominent politicians.
Prosecutors said the men had copies of a letter left on the body of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, handbooks on how to carry out ritual Islamic murders, and spoke in tapped telephone conversations about slaying nonbelievers like sacrificial lambs.
A number of them trained in Pakistan to carry out armed attacks, prosecutors said.
Defense attorneys said their clients were acquaintances, but not terrorists, and the evidence against them was weak.
“My client will be found innocent in the end,” said defense lawyer Robert Ketwaru, accusing prosecutors of going on a “witch hunt” after Van Gogh’s Nov. 2 killing. “My client wishes to emphasize that murder has nothing to do with Islam.”
The charges against the 12 include conspiracy to commit murder in a terrorist attack, impeding democracy, threatening the lives of politicians, attempted arson and illegal possession of firearms. They could face life imprisonment if convicted.
Judges rejected requests to release the men, ruling that the charges are too serious. They granted investigators an extension of up to 90 days.
The defendants, mostly Muslims of North African ancestry, were arrested in the days following Van Gogh’s death — a slaying that stunned the nation and triggered a wave of retaliatory attacks on Islamic buildings. Prosecutors may still bring charges in that attack.
Defendant Mohamed el Morabit told the judges he is innocent. “I had nothing to do with this. I was just trying to live my life. I have nothing against the Netherlands. I just want to stay here with my family,” he said.
Prosecutors will submit tapped phone recordings, e-mails and records of conversations on Internet chat rooms in which the defendants spoke about plans to commit murders and exchanged fundamentalist views.
The men, aged 18-27, all allegedly associated with the chief suspect in Van Gogh’s murder and attended “living room prayer sessions” with the group’s alleged Syrian spiritual leader, one of several suspects at large, prosecutors said.
The chief suspect, Mohammed Bouyeri, 26, is on trial separately in Amsterdam.
Two leading defendants in the so-called Hofstad Network case are Jason Walters and Ismail Akhnikh, arrested a week after Van Gogh was slain. They face additional charges for allegedly throwing a hand grenade that wounded three police officers during their arrest.
“We’re facing an extremely radical group,” prosecutor Koos Plooy said in an opening statement. “The prosecution is convinced that their arrest prevented one or more very serious attacks.”
Van Gogh was shot repeatedly and his throat had been slit. A note pinned to his chest with a knife threatened lawmakers Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders, along with Amsterdam’s mayor and his deputy.
Prosecutors said several defendants had copies of the fundamentalist text, while others carried a 115-page “Handbook for Jihad Warriors,” detailing how to plan and carry out murders.
Hirsi Ali wrote the script for one of Van Gogh’s last movies, “Submission,” which criticized the treatment of women under Islam.
Prosecutors said the suspects have ties to fundamentalist groups in Belgium and Spain, including those behind the deadly bombings in Madrid and Casablanca.
The other defendants are Mohamed Boughaba, Mohamed el Bousklaoui, Zine Labidine Aourghe, Yousef Ettoumi, Zakaria Taybi, Nadir Adarraf and Rashid Boussana.
It is the second major terrorism trial in the Netherlands since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
Prosecutors are using new laws giving them far-reaching powers of investigation and introducing stiffer sentences for terror-related crimes.
All but two of 12 suspects were acquitted in June 2003.