Four people were killed and 23 others wounded in Austria's first deadly jihadist attack

Vienna (AFP) - Six men accused of helping a gunman who carried out Austria’s first deadly jihadist attack on Tuesday all pleaded not guilty to the main charges as their trial opened in a Vienna court.

Convicted Islamic State group sympathiser Kujtim Fejzulai went on a shooting rampage on November 2, 2020 in downtown Vienna, killing four and wounding 23 others before police shot him dead.

In the wake of the EU member’s deadliest shooting in decades, the Austrian government and in particular its intelligence service were accused of failing to monitor the Islamist movement in the country.

The six defendants – four Austrians, a Chechen and a Kosovar – were not directly involved in the deadly attack, but are suspected of actively helping Fejzulai prepare for the shooting, prosecutors said.

The lead prosecutor, who cannot be named due to security concerns, said evidence painted an “unambigious and very clear picture” of the men’s involvement, describing the attack as “malicious, almost bestial”.

- ‘Scapegoats’ -

The six men – aged between 21 and 32 years old – are accused of “enabling… or otherwise promoting” the execution of the crimes “due to their shared affiliation with the radical Islamist scene and the terrorist organisation IS Islamic State,” according to the charge sheet.

The accused face charges ranging from participating in terrorist crimes in connection with murder to involvement or membership in a terrorist group.

Four of them could be sentenced to life in prison if found guilty, while the two others face up to 20 years in jail with the prosecution demanding the maximum penalties.

All of them pleaded not guilty to the main charges, while two pleaded guilty to arms trafficking.

Their lawyers argued they had been unaware of what Fejzulai intended to do.

With the help of some of the accused, the gunman – an Austrian citizen whose parents are from North Macedonia – was allegedly able to obtain the weapons and the ammunition needed for the attack, while others provided logistical aid or encouraged Fejzulai, according to prosecutors.

Their lawyers argued that the evidence was only “circumstantial”, with one of them saying “the chain of evidence is inconclusive and crumbles”.

Another accused prosecutors of trying to find “scapegoats” to hide the authorities’ failings to stop the attack.

At the start of the trial, all six were led into the crowded courtroom, escorted by armed guards under tight security. Cameras were barred from the room.

All except one have been held in custody on remand in the lead-up to the trial.

- ‘Ensure justice is done’ -

The trial is scheduled to resume at the beginning of December. Verdicts are not expected before February.

Lawyer Mathias Burger, acting for the family of 21-year-old Nedzip Vrenezi, who was shot dead first by Fejzulai during the attack, told AFP in an interview ahead of the opening of the trial that the family “still suffers to this day” from what happened to their son.

The victim’s family had received compensation from the Austrian state, but his clients’ main interest was to “ensure justice was done”, Burger said.

During the rampage, Fejzulai opened fire on passersby with a Kalashnikov in central Vienna.

In 2019, Fejzulai had been convicted and sentenced to 22 months in prison for trying to join the Islamic State group in Syria, before being arrested in Turkey and extradited to Austria.

Last year, Austria adopted a heavily criticised anti-terror law that was formulated in the wake of the attack and allows for increased surveillance.