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Man accused of membership in extremist Islamic State group goes on trial in Germany

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BERLIN — A 20-year-old German man went on trial in Frankfurt on Monday on charges he was a member of the extremist Islamic State group, the first such case to come to court in Germany.

Prosecutors allege that Kreshnik Berisha, who once played for a Jewish soccer club, traveled to Syria last year and fought with the group before returning to Germany five months later.

Berisha, who was arrested at Frankfurt airport in December, faces up to 10 years in prison for membership in a foreign terrorist organization. But judge Thomas Sagebiel indicated that Berisha could receive a prison sentence between 3 ¼ years and 4 ¼ years if he cooperates and prosecutors agree to a deal.

Heightened security measures have been put in place for the trial, which is expected to last until at least November. It opened just days after Germany formally banned Islamic State symbols and any propaganda activity for the group.

Authorities say more than 400 people from Germany have joined jihadist groups fighting in Syria since the start of the conflict there. Some are converts to Islam, but many — like Berisha — come from Muslim families that have settled in Germany.

PHOTO: German Kreshnik B. , left, waits for the beginning of his trial at a higher regional court in Frankfurt,  Germany, Monday, Sept.15, 2014. He is accused of having been a member of the Islamic state group in Syria. He was arrested when he came back to Germany in December 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
German Kreshnik B. , left, waits for the beginning of his trial at a higher regional court in Frankfurt, Germany, Monday, Sept.15, 2014. He is accused of having been a member of the Islamic state group in Syria. He was arrested when he came back to Germany in December 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Berisha's radicalization apparently occurred over the course of a few years. As recently as 2011 he appeared "very nice, unassuming," according to the chairman of TuS Makkabi Frankfurt, Germany's most prominent Jewish soccer club, whose under-17 youth team Berisha played for.

"There were no signs of what would follow later," said Alon Meyer, who coached the youth team one level above the one Berisha played on.

"This shows just how strong the forces must have been that turned a well-integrated player into an aspiring terrorist," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Meyer said the speed with which Berisha went from playing for a Jewish soccer club to joining a radical jihadist group underlined "how strongly we have to confront this kind of racism or we are in real trouble."

During Monday's hearing, two recordings were played of telephone calls Berisha made from Syria to one of his sisters in Germany, in which he explained his religious motivation to join.

"Don't babble to me about the Quran," his sister retorted, according to German news agency dpa. "You're young, stupid and naive."

Berisha's lawyer said his client would address the court Friday.

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PHOTO: German Kreshnik B. waits for the beginning of his trial at a higher regional court in Frankfurt,  Germany, Monday, Sept.15, 2014. He is accused of having been a member of the Islamic state group in Syria. He was arrested when he came back to Germany in December 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
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