France jails Islamists for Eiffel Tower terror plot

John Lichfield
Thursday 15 June 2006 00:00

Twenty five people were convicted by a French court yesterday of plotting Islamist terrorist attacks in France in 2001-02, including possibly a gas attack on the Eiffel Tower.

The leaders of a so-called "Chechen" network among Algerian radicals were given jail sentences of nine and ten years. Others were given much lighter sentences than the prosecution had requested. Two people were acquitted.

A seven-week trial which ended on 12 May uncovered many holes in the prosecution case and failed to establish exactly what kind of terrorist attack was planned.

There were accusations that some form of gas attack, possibly using ricin, was contemplated and that targets included the Eiffel Tower, the commercial centre at Les Halles in central Paris and the Russian embassy in Paris.

However, the prosecution produced no evidence that the plot ever proceeded beyond a vague planning stage.

The court, in its delayed judgement yesterday, gave tough sentences to four people accused of being the ringleaders of the group. Merouane Benhamed and Menad Benchellali were convicted of "association with terrorists" and given maximum 10- year sentences. Said Arif and Nourredine Merabet received nine-year jail terms.

Benhamed, 33, was accused of being the "orchestra director" and "promoter" of the plot. Benchellali, 32, was accused of "manipulating chemicals".

Other defendants, including Benchellali's father, mother and brother were accused of playing relatively minor roles in the plot and received light or suspended sentences. The main defendants were former members of the Algerian Islamist organisation, the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA).

Others, recruited in the Paris and Lyons suburbs had been sent to training camps in the Caucasus but had never fought in the Chechen civil war. The group was nonetheless named the "Chechen" network by French anti-terrorist investigators.

After the verdicts and sentences were delivered, Benhamed's lawyer, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, said the defendants were "accused of being Muslims" and the sentences had been dictated by the United States, Algeria and Russia. France had been "told to condemn Muslims who annoy these powers", she said. "This was a truly political verdict".

Mme Coutant-Peyre is the wife of the 1970s terrorist leader Carlos the Jackal. She married him after he was convicted and jailed in France.

Another defence lawyer, Sébastien Bono, said the trial had partly been based on the confession of his client, Arif, which he said had been obtained under torture in Syria. He denounced the "extraordinary hypocrisy" of the court for accepting such evidence.

The public prosecutor was unable to provide proof that a chemical attack was planned, although police seized a protective suit, and chemicals including the highly toxic substance, ricin. The so-called Chechen network was dismantled in two series of raids.

In December 2002, police stormed two apartments in the northern Paris suburbs of La Courneuve and Romainville. They found gas canisters, fuses, chemicals and a protective suit against chemical attacks.

During a second series of arrests, in January 2004 in Venissieux, near Lyons, investigators found chemical products, including ricin.

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