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France convicts ex-Gitmo inmates of terrorism ties

A French court convicted five former inmates of the Guantanamo Bay prison on terrorism-related charges Wednesday, but did not send any of them back to prison in France.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A court convicted five former inmates of Guantanamo on terrorism-related charges on Wednesday but did not send any of them back to prison in France.

A sixth man was acquitted, and his lawyer said he would try to win reparations from Washington for his time at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Also on Wednesday, three longtime British residents were released from Guantanamo and flown to Britain. London police arrested two on suspicion of preparing terrorist acts, while the third was detained for questioning.

The ruling in France capped proceedings that seemed at times like a trial of the U.S. prison camp itself with the prosecutor lashing out at the "Guantanamo system" and saying the prison violates international law.

Hundreds of men suspected of ties to al-Qaida or the Taliban are held at Guantanamo, almost all of them without charge. They are accorded fewer rights than prisoners of war under international law.

Five convicted on broad terror charge
Seven French citizens were captured in or near Afghanistan by U.S. forces in late 2001. All were held for at least two years at Guantanamo and then handed over to French authorities in 2004 and 2005. One of them was found to have no ties to terrorism and was freed immediately after his return to France.

The others spent up to 17 months in prison in France. But by the time the verdict was announced Wednesday, all of them were out of prison pending rulings in their cases.

The five men were convicted of "criminal association with a terrorist enterprise," a broad charge frequently used in France.

All the men insisted during the trial that they were innocent.

The court followed the recommendations of Prosecutor Sonya Djemni-Wagner, who said Dec. 11 that she could not condone the men's "abnormal detention" at Guantanamo.

"None of them should have been held on that base, in defiance of international law, and have had to go through what they went through," she said.

However, she said they should be convicted because they used phony identity papers and visas to knowingly "integrate into terrorist structures" in Afghanistan.

Lawyers plan to appeal
Five of the men — Brahim Yadel, Khaled ben Mustafa, Nizar Sassi, Mourad Benchellali and Ridouane Khalid — said during the trial that they had spent time in military training camps in Afghanistan but claimed they had never put their combat skills to use.

The sixth man, Imad Kanouni, said he went to Afghanistan for spiritual reasons. He was acquitted, as the prosecutor had recommended. Lawyer Felix de Belloy said he would try to seek reparations from the U.S. government on behalf of Kanouni.

The formal sentence for Sassi, Benchellali, Khalid and ben Mustafa was four years in prison, with three of the years suspended and one year counted as time served. Yadel was sentenced to five years in prison, with four of those years suspended and one year as time served.

Lawyers for four of the men said they would appeal, while Khalid's plans were not clear.

The verdict was originally expected in September 2006 but was postponed. At the time, the court said it needed to seek more information about secret interrogations of the suspects by French intelligence officers at the American base.

Arguing for their acquittal, the suspects' lawyers had complained that the men were questioned by agents of the French DST counterintelligence service outside the framework of international law. They argued that the interrogators unjustly gathered information to bolster the case against the men.

But the court dismissed that argument, saying the DST agents were merely doing intelligence work that had no impact on the court case.

British suspects released from Gitmo
The three British residents — Jamil el-Banna of Jordan, Libyan-born Omar Deghayes, and Abdennour Sameur of Algeria — landed at Luton airport, north of London on Wednesday evening.

Police said officers accompanying the three arrested Deghayes and Sameur under the Terrorism Act shortly before their chartered aircraft landed. El-Banna was detained on a port stop, which allows police to hold suspects entering Britain for up to eight hours and take fingerprints and DNA samples.

Two other British residents, Saudi-born Shaker Aamer and Ethiopian national Binyam Mohamed, will remain at Guantanamo after the United States refused to release them, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said last week.

Five British citizens were freed from Guantanamo in March 2004 and four in January 2005, according to Britain's Foreign Office.