German hardline preacher's trial for helping Syria militants begins

September 6, 2016 11:04 AM EDT

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DUESSELDORF, Germany (Reuters) - A German man charged with supporting an Islamist militant group in Syria stayed silent on the first day of his trial in Duesseldorf on Tuesday, though his lawyer told the court that the prosecution was "flying blind" and its witnesses were unfit.

Prosecutors said Sven Lau, 35, had served as an "extended arm" of the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, an insurgent group made up of around 1,500 Chechen, Uzbek and Tajik fighters, which last year pledged allegiance to the Nusra Front, then an al Qaeda affiliate.

Lau supported the Mujajireen Brigades, which is listed as a terrorist organization in Germany, four times in 2013 by either collecting funds or recruiting fighters for the group, prosecutors say. German intelligence says Lau also visited Syria in 2013, based on videos posted online.

Mutlu Guenal, Lau's lawyer, told the court in Duesseldorf that the trial was a "flying blind judicially," accusing the prosecution of relying on people who had either lied in testimony or who he said were mentally unfit as witnesses.

Lau, a hardline Muslim preacher from Germany's western state of North-Rhine Westphalia, has been in pre-trial custody for nine months and faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty.

A total of 820 Islamists are believed to have departed Germany to war zones in Syria and Iraq, up from 780 at the end of last year. About one third are estimated to have returned.

Lau also faces a separate trial for showing up with nine supporters in the city of Wuppertal wearing orange vests emblazoned with 'Sharia Police.' Prosecutors said this was an illegal gathering as he and eight others were trying to recruit others to join them.

(Reporting by Anneli Palmen; Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Erik Kirschbaum and Raissa Kasolowsky)

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