In a case that has raised concerns about possible infringements on journalistic practice, the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (OAG) says the trio broke Swiss laws that forbid support for groups such as Al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) by interviewing and publishing online an interview with Saudi cleric Abdullah al-Muhaysini carried out in Syria in 2015.
While interviewing radical Islamicists is not illegal, prosecutors say Naim Cherni, a young filmmaker from Bern and head of the ISSC’s cultural production unit, together with the organisation’s media spokesperson Abdel Azziz Qaasim Illi and ISSC president Nicolas Blancho contravened journalistic principles in the publication of Cherni's interview with al-Muhaysini.
Prosecutors say that by giving the Saudi cleric 35 minutes of air time and only giving two minutes to the interviewer, the makers of the video had produced propaganda for Al-Qaeda.
The OAG says the makers of the video footage which was confiscated by prosecutors in 2015 gave al-Muhaysini a “prominent, multilingual and multimedia platform” to promote himself and the ideology of Al-Qaeda.
The videos of the interview – which feature al-Muhaysini calling on young Muslims in Europe to join the jihad in Syria, but not with ISIS – helped promote jihadism, the OAG argues.
In the Federal Court in Bellinzona on Wednesday, state prosecutor Juliette Noto called for a suspended sentence of two years' prison for the three ISSC members, with the probation period being five years – a demand described by Swiss media as “tough”.
However, the defendants argue the trial is politically motivated and their lawyers are expected on Thursday to call for all charges to be dropped.
They say al-Muhaysini is neither a member of Al-Qaeda nor a terrorist, but rather a bridge-builder between different Islamicist groups in the Syrian opposition – a fact confirmed by the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (FIS) in a report cited by Swiss regional daily Aargauer Zeitung.
Al-Muhaysini originally travelled to Syria intending to reconcile the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda with ISIS. However, he stepped away from ISIS because they killed Muslims.
He was an active recruiter of child soldiers and was featured in the first issue of Syria’s Al-Qaeda magazine al-Risalah where he criticised ISIS. But he maintains he is independent from Al-Qaeda.
In the lead-up to Wednesday’s case in the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona, the ICCS, which has around 4,000 members from Switzerland’s estimated Muslim population of over 400,000, provided journalists with access to the prosecutors’ indictments and FIS documents relating to the investigation.
In those documents, Al-Muhaysini was described as a propagandist, a Sharia judge and a recruiter of jihadists. The FIS also said his anti-ISIS stance was logical given his de-facto support for Al-Qaeda.
The trial is expected to conclude on Thursday with a verdict to be handed down by the end of the month.
Supporters of the three defendants cried out Allahu Akbar (God is the greatest) outside the Bellinzona court on Wednesday, according to Swiss daily Le Temps.