Dutch terrorism trial opens in confusion as witness stays silent

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The trial of 14 Muslim men accused of plotting to murder Dutch politicians began in confusion, when the first witness refused to testify - or even give her name.

The defendants, mostly Dutch-born children of north African immigrants, include Mohammed Bouyeri, already sentenced to life in prison for the murder in November 2004 of the film-maker Theo van Gogh.

The men were escorted from prisons around the country to the special, high-security courtroom on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Bouyeri and three others did not attend.

After several acquittals in other prominent cases, the trial of the so-called Hofstad network will be a test for new Dutch laws that advocates say lower the bar for conviction of extremists. It is also seen as evidence of the threat Europe faces from homegrown radicals.

At pre-trial hearings, prosecutors said the accused possessed copies of a letter left on Van Gogh's body and handbooks on how to carry out murders.

They were heard speaking in tapped telephone conversations about slaying non-believers like sacrificial lambs. Several of them trained in Pakistan to carry out armed attacks, prosecutors said.

The first witness, identified by judges as Malika Shabi, declined to speak to the judges or even confirm her name. Shesat silently as Judge de Boer read aloud excerpts from a statement she made to police in which she told of her hasty marriage to one of the suspects, Nouriddin el Fatmi.

He was arrested near an Amsterdam railway station with a machine pistol and ammunition.

Koos Plooy, for the prosecution, said one reason for Ms Shabi's silence could have been that she received a letter urging her not to talk to police or non-believers, and reminding her of "judgement day".

Hearings are scheduled to be held through January, with a verdict due on 24 February.AP