Algerian denies rail bomb charge

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An Algerian man went on trial yesterday for allegedly helping to fund a string of deadly terror attacks 12 years ago in Paris that killed eight, injured 150 and rattled the nation.

Prosecutors say Rachid Ramda — the subject of a 10-year extradition battle with authorities in London — was the financier of 1995 Paris subway bombings by the now-defunct GIA terrorist group based in Algeria.

He is facing charges of complicity to murder and attempted murder, and could be sentenced to up to life in prison if convicted.

Ramda, 38, entered the courtroom of the special Paris tribunal — composed only of magistrates — with his hair and beard closely cropped and wearing a plum-colored jacket and white shirt.

Court officials spent all day reading out the charges and list of witnesses. Hearings resume Tuesday, and Ramda is expected to start testifying on October 9.

Ramda was based in Britain during the attacks, and was arrested soon afterward at the request of French authorities. He spent years in British custody before he was extradited to France in December 2005, and he has remained behind bars since.

A Paris court already convicted Ramda in December of a role in planning the attacks, giving him a 10-year prison sentence on charges of criminal association with a terrorist group.

The new trial carries the heavier murder-related charges. He is expected to face questions about at least three bombings, including the July 25, 1995, blast in the Saint-Michel subway station that killed eight people and injured 150, judicial officials said on condition of anonymity because the case was pending.

In an interview in French daily Liberation published Monday, Ramda called the charges "absurd," and said he was a "simple Muslim" who had not been in a position to help organize the attacks. The interview was conducted through an intermediary.

Boualem Bensaid, the mastermind of the Saint-Michel attack, and Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, the radical movement's bomb expert, are serving life sentences handed down by a French court in 2002.

In the interview, Ramda denied any connection with the two men and said he never met them.

The justice officials said police searching Ramda's London home found a Western Union slip showing Ramda had wired Bensaid money on the eve of the Oct. 17, 1995, bombing on Paris' Musee d'Orsay subway station — the group's last attack. The slip had his fingerprints on it, officials said.

Prosecutors believe that in addition to financing the attacks, Ramda also handled propaganda for the group and was in contact with nearly all its members in Lille, Lyon and the French capital, judicial officials said.

At the time of the attacks, the GIA, or Armed Islamic Group, was waging an insurgency against the Algerian government prompted by the army's decision to cancel elections that an Islamist party was slated to win.

Ramda's lawyer, Sebastien Bono, said he would call Jean-Louis Debre, France's interior minister at the time of the attacks, and then-Justice Minister Jacques Toubon to testify at the trial.

A verdict is expected October 30.