Members of the Tunisian police stand guard outside the Tunis courthouse on May 26, 2017, where the first public hearing was held for the trial of 33 people in connection with the jihadist beach massacre at the southern city of Sousse killed dozens of foreign tourists in 2015. - AFP

TUNIS: A Tunisian court held its first public hearing yesterday in the trial of 26 people in connection with a 2015 beach massacre that killed dozens of foreign tourists. A student armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and grenades went on a rampage in the Port El-Kantaoui resort near Sousse killing 38 holidaymakers, 30 of them Britons, before being shot dead by police. It was the second of two deadly attacks on foreigners claimed by the Islamic State group that year, which devastated Tunisia's once-lucrative tourism sector.

Security was unusually tight at the Tunis courthouse for yesterday's hearing, which lasted around an hour and a half and was attended by British diplomatic officials. Six of the defendants are policemen accused of failing to assist a person in danger. The remainder, all Tunisians, are accused of terrorist offences, murder and "conspiracy against the security of the state", the prosecution said.

The prosecution told AFP that 26 people were being tried, revising the number down from its earlier statement that 33 accused were going on trial. If convicted, they could face the death penalty under a 2015 anti-terror law, despite a moratorium on capital punishment since 1991. The examining magistrate finished his investigation in July last year. Lawyers for both the prosecution and the defense had said before the trial that they would ask for an adjournment to give them more time to study the case.

Several defense lawyers applied for bail, telling the judge their clients had "no link" to the attacker. Tunisian authorities say gunman Seifeddine Rezgui had "mainly" been radicalized on the internet before receiving weapons training in neighboring Libya. Ines Harrath said her client, Achraf Sandi, was not a "terrorist" but had been arrested "because his brother, who is on the run, is accused of involvement in the case".

Another defense lawyer, Salha Ben Farah, said her two clients had been tortured during interrogation and in prison. The judge told AFP that the date for the next hearing would be announced yesterday afternoon. There has been widespread criticism of the Tunisian police force's actions during the June 26, 2015 massacre.

British judge Nicholas Loraine-Smith, who held an inquest into the deaths of the Britons among the holidaymakers, said in February that the police response had been "at best shambolic, at worst cowardly". "Their response could and should have been more effective," he said. Andrew Ritchie, a lawyer representing 20 victims' families, read out a Jan 2015 report by a British diplomat, saying there had been "little in the way of effective security to prevent or respond to an attack" at the beach.

Nearly two years after the massacre, London still advises against non-essential travel to Tunisia, a restriction Tunis would like to see lifted. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said in November that the security situation was "stable" and Tunisia was under no more threat than other countries. - AFP