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Dutch terror trial starting for deadly Utrecht tram shooting

UTRECHT, Netherlands (AP) — The gunman in last year's attack in the Dutch city of Utrecht walked calmly into and around a tram, shooting at passengers from close range while shouting “Allahu akbar,” or “Allah Akbar,” according to witness statements read Monday as the terror trial of the suspect got underway.

The attack left four people dead and three wounded and shocked the Netherlands, which has avoided the large-scale terror attacks that have hit nearby nations Belgium and France. The alleged shooter, Gokmen Tanis — bearded and handcuffed — sat flanked by guards and police in a courtroom packed with relatives of victims as Presiding Judge Ruud van Veldhuisen read out statements given to police by witnesses to the mass shooting on March 18 last year.

Tanis, 38, said nothing throughout the hearing Monday morning. He smiled as he entered the courtroom and stared straight ahead as the presiding judge asked if he had yawned because he was nervous. He later refused to answer repeated questions from Van Veldhuisen.

"Do you not dare? Do you now want" to answer questions? Van Veldhuisen asked. The judge asked Tanis if his actions had been in response to the shooting in the New Zealand city of Christchurch, just days before the tram shooting, in which a gunman killed 51 people at two mosques. Tanis gave no answer. The judge said that a nephew had sent Tanis video images of the Christchurch massacre.

Later, Tanis was removed from the hearing and taken to a separate room to follow proceedings after he spat at his court-appointed lawyer. Thea Terpstra, whose brother Rinke was killed in the shooting, watched the proceedings from the public gallery, sitting a few meters (feet) behind the suspect.

"I want a life sentence. Preferably a double life sentence, but that doesn't exist here," she said outside court. Terpstra said she was not concerned that Tanis said nothing. “I don't think he has much interesting to tell us,” she said. “I don't have to know his motives. I lost my brother and nothing can bring him back.”

The court played an animated video reconstruction of the attack based on images from surveillance cameras in the tram. It showed the shooter carrying a pistol with a silencer attached walking through the tram, shooting passengers from close range, after the weapon initially failed to work.

There were 17 people, including a young couple and their child in a stroller, in the tram carriage where the shooting happened. Van Veldhuisen said that the silencer was adorned with texts referring to Islam that forensic tests later established were written by Tanis.

The reconstruction showed the gunman jumping out of the tram and walking toward cars stopped at traffic lights where he appeared to pause to decide where to shoot next. He pointed his pistol at a car and shot through the windshield. The driver, identified in court only by his first name, Willem, died some 10 days later.

Van Veldhuisen said that one witness said the shooter shouted “Allah akbar,” adding, “that is different to how we Muslims say that.” Prosecutors say that other witnesses cited the shooter as shouting “Allahu akbar.”

The judge also cited statements by family members who described Tanis as a “part-time Muslim” who sometimes drank alcohol and gambled. Prosecutors have charged Tanis with four counts of murder with terrorist intent and three counts of attempted murder as well as making a terrorist threat against 17 people — the number of passengers in the tram carriage where the shooting happened — over his alleged role in the attack. He faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if convicted.

The Dutch terror threat level in Utrecht was briefly raised to the highest level and people were warned to stay indoors as police swarmed through the city hunting down the shooter. Tanis was arrested in Utrecht the same day as the shooting.

Prosecutors said last year that Tanis has confessed to the shooting and left a hand-written note in a getaway car that said in Dutch: “I’m doing this for my religion. You kill Muslims and you want to take our religion away from us, but you won’t succeed. Allah is great.”

Prosecutors last year described Tanis as a repeat offender, a drug user and “difficult person,” but said their previous investigations had not uncovered evidence he was plotting a terror attack.

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