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Court convicts men tied to Iraq recruitment cell

A Paris court on Wednesday convicted seven men of terrorism for helping funnel fighters to Iraq, a case that exposed how the war there has sucked in radical youths from Europe.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Paris court on Wednesday convicted seven men of terrorism for helping funnel fighters to Iraq, a case that exposed how the war there has lured in radical youths from Europe.

The judge handed down sentences of up to seven years in prison. All seven suspects -- five Frenchmen, a Moroccan and an Algerian — were convicted of "criminal association with a terrorist enterprise," a blanket charge used in many French terrorist cases.

Most acknowledged going to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 or planning to go, but all denied accusations that they were involved in a cell recruiting French fighters for Iraq's insurgency.

Funneled fighters
Investigators say the alleged network funneled about a dozen French fighters to camps linked to al-Qaida in Iraq head Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and sought to send more before he was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006. At least seven French insurgents have died in Iraq, some in suicide bombings, police say.

The man accused of being the cell's ringleader, 27-year-old Farid Benyettou, was sentenced to six years in prison.

Boubakeur el-Hakim, whose brother was killed in Iraq, was given a seven-year sentence, as was Moroccan Said Abdellah.

Judge Jacqueline Rebeyrotte sentenced Algerian Nacer Mettai, accused of forging documents for the potential fighters, to four years in prison.

The three others — Mohammed el-Ayouni, Thamer Bouchnak and Cherif Kouachi — were given three-year sentences, 18 months of which were suspended. El-Ayouni lost an arm and an eye fighting in Iraq, while Bouchnak and Kouachi were arrested days before they planned to travel to Syria, allegedly to train for Iraq.

The sentences fell slightly short of the prosecution's requests. One of the defense lawyers, Martin Tradel, called the sentences "extremely severe."

It was not immediately clear if there would be any appeals.

19th arrondissement network
The men were accused of links to the so-called 19th arrondissement network, named for the Paris district where it was based. The district is a multi-national, working-class neighborhood including many Muslim families with roots in one-time French colonies in North Africa.

After years of investigation by French authorities, the men went on trial in March. The case raised fears that the fighters could use Iraqi battlefield skills in terror attacks back in France. France strongly opposed the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq but has long struggled against homegrown terrorism and is home to western Europe's largest Muslim population, about 5 million people.