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PARIS, Jan 5: A German convert to Islam pleaded innocent on Monday when he and Al Qaeda’s 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were put on trial for plotting a bloody 2002 suicide bombing of a Tunisian synagogue.

“Every time innocents die, that touches me deeply,” insisted Christian Ganczarski when he appeared in a Parisian anti-terrorism court to face a charge that he and Sheikh Mohammed planned the attack which left 21 dead.

A Tunisian, Walid Nawar, has also been charged.

“What’s going on here is not a hunt for the truth, but an execution,” 42-year-old Ganczarski declared, speaking through an interpreter after his defence counsel urged that the charges against him be dropped.

Sheikh Mohammed is in Guantanamo Bay prison and will not attend the French hearings, but Ganczarski and Nawar were in court.

The Kuwaiti-born militant, who has confessed to being the architect of the Sept 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, is reputed to have been Al Qaeda’s military commander responsible for all foreign operations.

The French trial, however, will focus on Ganczarski, a German of Polish origin who converted to Islam and allegedly played a leading role in Al Qaeda’s network in Europe.

Monday’s hearing was held before a specially constituted panel of seven expert magistrates, rather than a jury, at the main criminal court in Paris.

It opened with a motion from Ganczarski’s lawyer Sebastien Bono, who argued that his client’s right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty had been violated and demanded the charges be dropped.

Bono recalled that when Ganczarski had been detained France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was then serving as interior minister, had announced “the arrest of an Al Qaeda leader, in contact with Osama bin Laden.” The defence lawyer also questioned why Sheikh Mohammed could not be called as a witness, since he was supposedly the ringleader. The judges, however, ruled that as a co-accused, Sheikh Mohammed could not also be a witness.

French prosecutors have charged the trio with “complicity in attempted murder in relation to a terrorist enterprise” and they face a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail if convicted of the April 11, 2002, attack.

On that day, suicide bomber Nizar Nawar detonated a fuel tanker rigged with explosives in front of the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba, killing 14 German tourists, five Tunisians and two French nationals.

Nawar is alleged to have contacted both Ganczarski and Sheikh Mohammed shortly before the bombing. Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the attack.

French and German investigators believe Ganczarski travelled several times between 1999 and 2001 to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to meet Osama.

The operative, who was in regular contact with Sheikh Mohammed, put his expertise in radio and internet communications at the service of Al Qaeda and helped recruit members in Europe, according to investigators.

The trial is scheduled to end on Feb 6.—AFP