Witnesses in the case against 13 people accused of preaching radical Islam in Bulgaria took the stand on September 27, but the testimony offered by several of them differed greatly from their earlier statements recorded by prosecutors, Bulgarian media reported.
According to the prosecution’s indictment, several witnesses said that the defendants preached the supremacy of Islam over secular institutions, leading to ethnic tension. Three of those witnesses offered conflicting testimony in court and denied making the earlier statements.
Asked why they signed the affidavits of their interviews, one of the witnesses said he did not know why and another said he was not fluent in Bulgarian, thus unaware of what he was signing.
The case, tried in the Pazardjik District Court, continued with the questioning of several protected witnesses behind closed doors. At least one of them is an employee of the State Agency for National Security (SANS) who had been involved in the investigation of the alleged radical Islam group.
The court held its first hearing on September 18, when it ruled to proceed with the trial. The next hearing, on September 26, was delayed by several hours to allow one of the defence lawyers to attend. On all three days of the hearings (September 27 included), dozens of people picketed outside the courthouse to show their support for the defendants.
The 13 defendants were arrested in October 2010, following a series of raids carried out by prosecutors, the Interior Ministry and SANS, Bulgaria’s main intelligence agency. All of them were charged with being members of the Al-Waqf Al-Islami organisation, not recognised by Bulgaria as a religious group.
(Although the organisation was reportedly registered in Bulgaria in 1993, under the country’s law on the registration of religious groups, it was denied registration the following year. In 1999, one of its leaders was expelled from Bulgaria as a threat to national security.)
Only three defendants – Said Mehmet Moutlou, Abdoullah Moustafa Salih and Ahmed Moussa Ahmed – face charges of preaching religious hatred and anti-democratic ideology aimed at undermining the secular state and democratic values. Said Moutlou was, according to prosecution, the leader of the Al-Waqf Al-Islami branch in southern Bulgaria (covering the districts of Pazardjik, Smolyan and Blagoevgrad) since 2005 and until his arrest in October 2010.
Following a lengthy investigation, resulting in 31 volumes of evidence to be presented in court, charges were finally pressed in June.
Throughout the investigation, the office of Chief Mufti, the principal Muslim leader in Bulgaria, has defended the accused. In its latest statement on the issue, on September 25, the office of the Chief Mufti said that the charges were blown out of proportion, untrue and highly manipulative.
Bulgarian Muslims were peaceful and tolerant to any other member of society, the statement said. (The prosecution’s case states the opposite for the three main defendants, claiming that they preached the supremacy of Islam over other religions).
“We are very worried that such accusations are undermining the authority of the Muslim religious institution, while at the same time constantly questioning the authority of these community-engaged individuals, on whom the Muslim community and the faith’s administration count so heavily, and whose administrative and religious competence is needed for the effective exercise of the guaranteed right to freely practice religion – collectively, publicly and through education,” the office of the Chief Mufti said.
“We admire the civic initiative of our fellow citizens who showed their moral support to the defendants and call on them to maintain a proper behaviour and respect for Bulgaria’s judiciary. The office of the Chief Mufti hopes for a competent, independent and fair decision from the Bulgarian judicial system,” the statement said.
Defence lawyers have argued for the dismissal of the charges, saying that membership in an organisation, even if unrecognised by the Bulgarian state, should not be held against the defendants. The accused themselves, which include 12 men and one woman, have pleaded not guilty to the charges brought against them.
Al-Waqf Al-Islami has been the target of allegations that it aided the teaching of radical Islam before. Its Eindhoven headquarters have been the subject of monitoring by Western intelligence services and a 2002 report by the Netherlands intelligence service alleged that Al-Waqf Al-Islami was linked to the propagation of radical Islam.
After the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the US office of Al-Waqf Al-Islami was shut down because of alleged links between members of the group and those who had prepared the terrorist attacks.
Al Waqf-Al Islami has denied being involved in any form of criminal activity and describes itself as a charitable organisation, involved in education and other issues. It has been involved in the financing of more than 150 mosques built in Bulgaria in recent years, reports in local media said.
(Photo: Jason Morisson/sxc.hu)