Belgium Islamist 'no different to Pussy Riot', his lawyer tells court

Maria Alyokhina (left) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, members of the punk protest band Pussy Riot, answer a question during a forum at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Sept 15, 2014. Punk band Pussy R
Maria Alyokhina (left) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, members of the punk protest band Pussy Riot, answer a question during a forum at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Sept 15, 2014. Punk band Pussy Riot were jailed by Russia in 2012 for a protest against President Vladimir Putin in Moscow's Orthodox cathedral. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A court sketch shows Jejoen Bontinck (third from left) and Fouad Belkacem (fourth from left) on the first day of the trial of a suspected militant group at Anwerp criminal court on Sept 29, 2014. Hardline Islamist Fouad, accused of inspiring dozens o
A court sketch shows Jejoen Bontinck (third from left) and Fouad Belkacem (fourth from left) on the first day of the trial of a suspected militant group at Anwerp criminal court on Sept 29, 2014. Hardline Islamist Fouad, accused of inspiring dozens of young Belgians to fight in Syria, is no different from feminist activists Femen and Pussy Riot, his lawyer said on Wednesday. -- PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (AFP) - A hardline Islamist accused of inspiring dozens of young Belgians to fight in Syria is no different from feminist activists Femen and Pussy Riot, his lawyer said on Wednesday.

Fouad Belkacem is on trial in the Belgian city of Antwerp with 45 others, most still at large, for suspected membership of a group believed to be sending extremists to fight in Syria.

A Salafist ideologue known for his virulent street sermons and online videos, Belkacem is accused of leading Sharia4Belgium, the radical group that was officially dissolved two years ago, but is accused of still actively recruiting fighters.

"His only goal was to provoke, just like Femen and Pussy Riot," Belkacem's lawyer John Maes was quoted as saying by Belga news agency.

Members of the Femen feminist movement have staged several bare-breasted protests around the world, while punk band Pussy Riot were jailed by Russia in 2012 for a protest against President Vladimir Putin in Moscow's Orthodox cathedral.

"He is not responsible for the departures of these young fighters to Syria, nor the crimes they have committed there," Maes said of Belkacem.

Armed police have guarded the court in the northern port city where nine of those alleged to be part of Sharia4Belgium, including Belkacem, are being tried on charges of leading a terrorist organisation.

Prosecutors have called for a 15-year jail sentence for the 32-year-old Belkacem. They allege Sharia4Belgium is responsible for ten per cent of the 300 to 400 fighters who have left the country for Syria.

Only nine of the defendants are present in Belgium with those at large believed to be in Syria where some of them may have been killed.

Investigators said Belkacem never travelled to Syria, unlike most of the members of the group, but he was the "catalyst" who prompted many to go and fight there.

The trial comes five months after a deadly attack on the Jewish museum in the centre of Brussels raised fears of a resurgence of anti-Semitic violence in Europe and of terror strikes from foreign fighters returning from Syria.

Belgium reportedly has the highest number of extremists per capita of any European country. The EU has said that more than 3,000 of its citizens are thought to have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight with Islamist groups.