Six French ex-Guantanamo inmates go on trial

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The Independent Online

Six French citizens who were once inmates of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre went on trial in Paris yesterday accused of "associating with terrorists".

France is the first western country to try citizens released from Guantanamo. The case, expected to last two weeks, will become partly a trial of US anti-terror policy but also of France’s decision – alone among European countries – to pursue legal action against former detainees in the US camp in Cuba.

The six men are accused of the catch-all offence of "associating with wrong-doers in connection with a terrorist undertaking". They were arrested, separately, in Afghanistan during the US invasion in early 2002.

Defence lawyers say that there is no evidence that they were involved, or planned to become involved, in terrorist activity. All six men claim that they travelled to Afghanistan with peaceful intentions, to study the Koran and learn about life in an Islamic country.

The prosecution says that they were recruited by extremist Islamist groups in France and sent to Afghanistan for 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 from Guantanamo into French custody in 2004.

All but one have since been released. They appeared in court on bail, yesterday. Brahim Yadel remains in custody because he broke the terms of a previous court order by travelling to Afghanistan in 2001.

According to the prosecution, all six men went through military training at the al-Farouk camp, near Kandahar, operated by Al-Qaida. Two of the accused, M. Benchellali and M.Yadel, are said to have attended a rally addressed by Ossam bin Laden himself.

Defence lawyers are expected to raise allegations of torture at Guantanamo and question the motives of the French anti-terrorists officials for bringing the cases to trial.

One of the accused, Khaled Ben Mustapha, said: "I am confident and calm. I have nothing to hide. I never belonged to any organised network. I went to Afghanistan in a spirit of peace... The trial is not about Guantanamo but it will be necessary to talk about it. It is an essential part of our story."