A total of 30 people are accused, but only 21 appeared in court yesterday; the rest are either wanted or in foreign prisons. The charges include "associating with criminals for terrorist purposes", and armed robbery.
There was tight security for the opening of the trial, which takes place less than a week after the bombing at Port Royal station in Paris. One theory is that the bomb, which killed four and injured over 90 people, was a protest against the trial.
In court yesterday defence lawyers argued that the current climate militated against their clients being given a fair trial. There was also heated argument over the absence of two main defendants. Stephane Ait- Iddir and Radouane Hammadi are at the centre of the case, but they are in prison in Morocco under sentence of death, having been caught and convicted soon after the attack at the Atlas-Asni hotel in Marrakech in August 1994. A third member of the Marrakech group, Tarek Falah, was in the dock.
Another of the defendants is Abdelilah Ziyad, regarded as one of two "emirs" of the network in France, responsible for proselytising among the disillusioned youth of housing estates and recruiting potential terrorists.
The case is significant because evidence is expected to show how far Islamic fundamentalism has penetrated the benighted housing estates that ring many French cities. All the men on trial mostly grew up on such estates.