Stockholm (AFP) – The trial of a rejected Uzbek asylum seeker, who pleaded guilty to an April 2017 Stockholm truck attack that killed five people, opened on Tuesday, a case which prosecutors see as an opportunity to better understand radicalisation.
Rakhmat Akilov, who turns 40 on Wednesday, appeared handcuffed in Stockholm’s special high-security courtroom, wearing green prison clothes and with a shaved head and a beard, accompanied by his lawyer Johan Eriksson.
Akilov, whose Swedish asylum application had been turned down in 2016, had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group on the eve of his assault in one of Europe’s safest cities, though the jihadist group never claimed responsibility.
After going underground, Akilov, on the afternoon of Friday, April 7, stole a beer delivery truck and barrelled down a bustling pedestrian shopping street, swerving wildly to hit as many people as possible.
He ended the rampage targeting “infidels” by ramming the truck into the facade of a department store and fled the scene.
Three Swedes were killed, including an 11-year-old girl, as well as a 41-year-old British man and a 31-year-old Belgian woman. Ten others were injured.
Prosecutors have said they will seek a life sentence for Akilov and, thereafter, his expulsion from the Scandinavian country. A life sentence in Sweden varies, but is on average 16 years.
Akilov’s defence lawyer Johan Eriksson told the court his client would not oppose either measure.
Prosecutor Hans Ihrman told the court that the case should provide a better understanding of “the process of radicalisation” of emerging attackers who are “marginalised in a foreign country” and who take on “symbolic targets”.
Akilov’s case “fits into a broader framework” of jihadists, he added.
Eriksson said his client “stole the truck and drove it” for nearly 500 metres at an average speed of 60 km per hour (37 mph) with the intention “to get Sweden to end its participation in the coalition against the Islamic State”.
He added that Akilov, who told investigators he had planned to die in the attack, acknowledged the facts presented in court.
Investigators believe that Akilov, who confessed during police questioning, acted alone.
– Synagogue and gay club –
The prosecution showed the court amateur videos filmed just after the attack, showing panicked passersby and a body lying on the ground.
After crashing the truck into the store, Akilov detonated an explosive device — made up of five gas canisters and nails — though it didn’t explode as planned and caused damage only to the truck.
Akilov fled the scene by running into a nearby metro station, and was arrested several hours later thanks to public transport video surveillance images.
In an adjoining room some observers watching the proceedings on a screen, including relatives of victims and survivors, sobbed and held hands.
The prosecution also showed images from a surveillance video of Akilov carrying out a reconnaissance mission at the scene of the attack weeks before the assault and buying chemicals to build explosives.
Investigators have recovered several smartphone exchanges Akilov had with unidentified contacts on encrypted chat sites before, during and after the attack.
Akilov wrote a list of potential targets to one of his contacts, including a synagogue, a ferry transporting “sinners” and a nightclub, adding: “There are plenty of infidels here.”
On February 12, he also googled “gay club in Stockholm”.
– Deportation order –
Akilov arrived in Sweden in 2014, at the start of the big migration wave to Europe. His application for residency was rejected in 2016, after which he went underground to avoid expulsion and worked odd jobs in construction.
In an April 2017 interview with AFP, Sweden’s justice minister Morgan Johansson said that around 10,000 people per year have received a deportation order but remained in the Nordic nation.
Akilov’s wife and four children stayed behind in Uzbekistan.
Europe has seen a wave of truck attacks in recent years.
The deadliest was in Nice, on July 14, 2016, when a truck rammed crowds leaving a fireworks display for France’s national holiday, killing 86 people.
The Scandinavian country has experienced only one other terror attack in modern times. In December 2010, a man blew himself up in a suicide attack in central Stockholm that lightly injured two passersby.
Akilov is scheduled to address the court on February 20. The case is set to continue through May with a verdict due in June.