Forgotten victims of terror

Metro bomb: A year after blast 200 languish in French jails while no one has been charged
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The Independent Online
At 4.30pm today, as the rush hour gathers pace, the great bell of Notre- Dame will toll in memory of the eight people killed a year ago when a bomb exploded at the nearby Saint-Michel Metro station. Survivors, as well as friends and relatives of the dead, will lay wreaths at the spot and remember the victims of an attack that opened a two-month urban bombing campaign, thought to be run by the hardline Algerian Islamic group, GIA, which set all France on edge.

One year on, most of the consequences of last year's bombs are now hidden. The suffering of the injured and bereaved is concealed behind the high walls of French family privacy. Others, however, languish almost forgotten in prison, remanded in custody in an investigation that is still far from complete.

While several key individuals are described as "wanted", and Khaled Kelkal - the 24-year-old French-educated Algerian who carelessly left his fingerprints on a bomb near Lyon, is dead, shot by French police last September - no person has yet been charged with the Saint-Michel bomb. Only one person apprehended in France is named as possibly playing a large role in the campaign. He is Boualem Bensaid, a 28-year-old Algerian arrested, it appears, almost by chance.

The lack of arrests and charges, however, is not for want of trying. Throughout last August and September, not a week went by without the police recording the number of people they had stopped, searched, and sometimes detained. The numbers ran into thousands.

There are now about 200 people in prison, on remand, in connection with last summer's bombs. They are held in various prisons, on the orders of different regional courts, in connection with offences, org- anisations or networks that may or may not finally come together in one central investigation.

The anti-terrorist section of the judiciary in Paris keeps a watching brief, but suspects can be kept in custody indefinitely only if their freedom is thought by a judge likely to jeopardise the investigation. In general, arrangements for the defence of those under investigation are said to be a debacle, with lawyers unable to gain access to documents they need and even lay their hands on details of charges pending.

In particular, Mr Bensaid is said to have been without defending counsel since the time of his arrest, having refused the lawyer allocated to him and having had his own nominee rejected in turn by the investigating judge.

In this, Rachid Ramda, an Algerian who was originally granted political asylum in London and who is now appealing against extradition to France, may count himself relatively fortunate. He is suspected by the French authorities of "controlling" the GIA cells in France. He is being defended, however, by Gareth Peirce, the civil-rights lawyer who appealed for the Guildford Four.

Though scaled down, the state of alert, Vigipirate, which brought troops on to the Parisian streets and authorised random stopping and searching, is still in force in the capital - most often now affecting young men of North African appearance. Dawn police raids on housing estates also continue, if sporadically.

Originally, the investigation focused on Paris and Lyon, but was later extended to Lille. Raids on housing estates were reported to have turned up quantities of arms, ammunition and Islamic fundamentalist literature. The majority of those detained come from these estates, not counting Kelkal's two associates, who were picked up in the Beaujolais hills.

For the authorities, anti-terrorism priorities have been reordered. At yesterday's Cabinet meeting the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, listed only two concerns: law and order on Corsica and helping Spain to combat the Eta Basque separatist organisation. He said not a word about the all-consuming threat of last summer, presumed to come from the GIA, assisted by Islamic fundamentalist sympathisers in France. The pursuit of Abdelkarim Deneche, the Algerian resident in Sweden whose extradition was urgently requested by the French prosecutor, is now tacitly acknowledged to have been a mistake - but, none the less, it has failed to prompt questions.

Mr Deneche, who lost his permanent residence in Sweden after the French investigation, revealed the extent of his political activities in emigration, and only narrowly avoided deportation back to Algeria.

The quiet consensus in France now is that Mr Deneche's arrest was a case of mistaken identity. He is said to resemble a certain Ait Touchent, a former deputy co-ordinator of the GIA, now believed to be the brains and missing link in the Saint-Michel case. Mr Deneche's problems arose after an off-duty gendarme "identified" him as having been in the Saint- Michel Metro station shortly before the bomb went off.

The debate about Kelkal's killing - whether he was or was not threatening police with a gun when he was shot, and why his death was shown live on peak-time television - rumbles quietly on. But it is one of the few echoes of last summer's events, disturbing as they are, to have aroused any unease among French citizens.

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