Tunisia awaits verdicts on jihadist massacre suspects

The shooting rampage at a Sousse tourist resort in June 2015 killed 38 people, mostly British tourists (AFP Photo/Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD)

Tunis (AFP) - A Tunisian court was holding final hearings Friday in two trials over jihadist attacks in 2015 on a museum and a tourist resort that left dozens dead, lawyers told AFP.

Twenty-one defendants, including two women, appeared in the Tunis courtroom for a closed hearing on the March 18, 2015 shooting at the Bardo museum in Tunis, which killed 21 foreign tourists and a Tunisian security guard.

"Only three defendants still have to give their pleas, and the verdict will be announced this evening," lawyer Monia Bousalmi told AFP.

Victims' family members in France and Belgium watched the hearing via a live video feed.

Bousalmi said a verdict was also expected Friday evening on 44 suspects in a separate trial on the June 26, 2015 shooting rampage in the Sousse tourist resort, which killed 38 people, most of them British tourists.

The court has heard that the two attacks, both claimed by the Islamic State group, were closely linked.

Several defendants pointed to the fugitive Chamseddine Sandi as mastermind of both.

According to Tunisian media, Sandi was killed in a US air strike in neighbouring Libya in February 2016, although there has been no confirmation.

Defendants in the two trials could be sentenced to death if found guilty, although Tunisia has had a freeze on capital punishment since 1991.

Four French nationals, four Italians, three Japanese and two Spaniards were among those killed in the Bardo attack, before the two gunmen themselves, armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, were shot dead.

One suspect questioned in court, Tunis labourer Mahmoud Kechouri, said he had helped plan the attack, including preparing mobile phones for Sandi, a neighbour and longtime friend.

Other defendants accused of helping prepare the attack said they had only discussed ideas with friends. Several alleged they were tortured in detention.

Since a 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, jihadist attacks in Tunisia have killed dozens of members of the security forces.

The Bardo and Sousse attacks dealt a heavy blow to the vital tourism sector in Tunisia, already suffering high unemployment.