KREMS, Austria (Reuters) - A 30-year old Chechen who Austrian authorities accuse of fighting with Islamic State jihadists in Syria in 2013 and sending them money pleaded not guilty when the country’s first such trial opened on Thursday.
Prosecutors allege Magomed Z., a Russian national, trained with IS in Syria between July and December 2013, fighting with the group, adopting its “nationality” and sending it $800.
The defendant said he had gone to Syria only to help refugees and search for the son of a relative.
“Jihad brings only war, brings only suffering,” he said quietly through an interpreter.
“I myself experienced war in Chechnya. I know what happened to us, having nothing to eat. We ate grass. I saw the images of war on the internet and wanted to help.”
Defense attorney Wolfgang Blaschitz said the man, who faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted of joining a terrorist organization, was practically blind without his glasses.
Responding to images showing the defendant holding weapons, Blaschitz said he was simply out to impress women.
The attorney also said Islamic State had formed only in early 2014, so his client could not have fought with them in 2013.
“Of course the political environment does not lend itself to promoting the assumption of innocence,” Blaschitz told reporters.
Islamic State has existed in its current form since June 2014, while its precursor organization, The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), was established in April 2013.
Fear of jihadist attacks is running high in Europe after Islamist gunmen killed 17 people in Paris this month.
Four policemen in bulletproof vests and balaclavas shielded Magomed Z. from cameras as he arrived for the trial. Handcuffed and with a stubble of a beard and wearing thick glasses, he appeared relaxed, smiling at his lawyer.
The suspect has been in custody since he was arrested in Austria in August. He had traveled from Chechnya to Syria in 2013, but came to Austria in December of that year “after it became too much” for him, Blaschitz told Reuters.
Around 170 people, half of them Chechens, have traveled from Austria to fight with jihadists in the Middle East, according to the interior ministry. Austrian police have detained several minors on suspicion of terrorism-related activities.
The suspect is also accused of owning pornographic pictures of minors, another allegation he denies.
Reporting by Shadia Nasralla; editing by John Stonestreet