Italian court sentences Tunisian al-Qa'ida suspect to five years

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An Italian court has convicted a Tunisian man suspected of heading Osama bin Laden's European logistics operations, handing down the first guilty verdict in Europe related to al-Qa'ida since 11 September.

Essid Sami Ben Khemais, known as "the Sabre", was convicted yesterday of charges including criminal association with the intent to obtain and transport arms, explosives and chemicals, and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Three other Tunisians who were tried with him – Belgacem Mohamed Ben Aouadi, Bouchoucha Mokhtar and Charaabi Tarek – were convicted on the same charges and sentenced to prison terms of up to five years.

Judge Giovanna Varga sentenced the four after presiding over a two-day trial earlier this month. They were arrested between April and October last year as part of a joint Italian-German investigation into the al-Qa'ida network in Europe. In Italy alone, about two dozen people, many based in Milan, have been arrested.

The four were not accused of direct involvement in the 11 September attacks in the United States. Investigators, however, say they fabricated false documents that allowed al-Qa'ida recruits to travel in Europe and elsewhere.

They were all charged with supplying false documents, breaking immigration laws and criminal association with the intent to obtain and transport arms, explosives and chemicals. But they were acquitted of possessing arms or explosives.

No weapons or chemicals were found but, the authorities say, wiretaps of telephone conversations indicated they may have been trying to get hold of the deadly poison cyanide.

Stefano Dambruoso, for the prosecution, said that, since 11 September, "it's the first verdict in Europe that recognised the existence on European territory of a cell that had strong links with a base in Afghanistan".

Gianluca Maris, a lawyer for the Tunisians, said he was satisfied that they had received a fair trial "despite this difficult climate" following the suicide terrorist attacks. The defence planned to appeal, he said.

Ben Khemais and the three other Tunisians requested and received a fast-track trial. The procedure allows for a limited amount of evidence to be introduced in a closed-door hearing, and a reduced sentence if the defendant is convicted. Under the reduced-sentence guidelines, the maximum of nine years was reduced to six.

Police believe Ben Khemais was sent from Afghanistan to supervise Mr bin Laden's operations in Europe. He is also suspected of having supervised a planned attack on the American embassy in Rome in January last year although he is not charged in that case. Spanish authorities, meanwhile, are trying to determine if Ben Khemais met with 11 September ringleader, Mohamed Atta, in Spain last year.

Last month, Ben Khemais, Tarek and Mokhtar were convicted in absentia by a Tunisian military tribunal for "belonging to a terrorist organisation operating overseas in times of peace," and sentenced to 20 years each in prison.

A trial of four Tunisians opened on Monday in Milan, but that case is expected to last several months.

A few days ago in Rome, police arrested four Moroccans who allegedly had maps showing the city water supply and the US embassy and a substance apparently containing a small quantity of cyanide. They were arrested on Thursday. Italian reports said the Moroccans were part of a group linked to al-Qa'ida, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat. Prosecutors say the Tunisians tried in Milan are members of the same group.