French agents questioned detainees in Guantanamo

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The Independent Online

The French government has been plunged into embarrassment by the revelation that its intelligence agents interrogated six French citizens inside the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.

Defence lawyers said the trial of the six men on terrorist charges, which began in Paris on Monday, had been seriously compromised. They said the French authorities had previously refused to admit that the six had been interrogated by French counter-terrorism agents at the detention centre in Cuba.

The newspaper Libération yesterday published a confidential diplomatic telegram from the French embassy in Washington to Paris in April 2002, which made it clear that French agents had questioned the men in the US camp the previous month. France has always challenged the legality of the camp and has - until now - refused to admit that it had interrogated its own citizens there.

The French Foreign Ministry implicitly admitted yesterday that the telegram was genuine, but insisted that the meetings were normal "consular visits" to "citizens in trouble abroad". This failed to explain the presence of agents from the Diréction Génerale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) and Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), the French equivalents of MI6 and M15.

The lawyer for two of the former inmates, Maître William Bourdon, said that "the whole procedure has been corrupted" by these "bizarre, unprecedented and clandestine" meetings.

But he and other defence lawyers said they wished the trial to continue so that the accused could "express themselves".

France is the first Western country to try citizens released from the US camp. The six men are accused of "associating with wrong-doers in connection with a terrorist undertaking". They were arrested, separately, in Afghanistan during the US invasion in 2002.

The men claim they were there to study the Koran, or learn about Islamic life. The prosecution says they were recruited by extremist Islamist groups in France and sent to Afghanistan to undergo training for attacks on Western targets. All but one of the men are said to have passed through a network based in London.

The men - Mourad Benchellali, 25, Nizar Sassi, 26, Brahim Yadel, 34, Imad Achab Kanouni, 29, Khaled Ben Mustapha, 34, and Redouane Khalid, 38 - were released into French custody in 2004.