A French court on Tuesday gave the maximum 10-year prison sentence to the ringleader of an alleged plot to send a suicide bomber into the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
The court also sentenced five other defendants in the case to prison terms of between one and nine years.
The group’s ringleader, Djamel Beghal, 39, and the others were charged with “criminal association in relation with a terrorist enterprise,” a broad accusation commonly used in terrorism cases in France that allowed for a maximum 10-year sentence.
The defendants all denied any connection to a terror plot, and Beghal testified that his confession of a plan to send a suicide bomber into the U.S. Embassy was obtained under torture after his July 2001 arrest in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He was extradited to France two months later and retracted that confession.
The defendants involved in the plot spanned five European countries. The investigation against them opened Sept. 10, 2001 — a day before the al-Qaida terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Trail of phone calls, meetings, trips
No solid evidence of a plot was presented at the trial, leaving the panel of three judges to untangle a trail of phone calls, meetings with suspect acquaintances and trips.
Prosecutors claimed the plot was concocted in Afghanistan with leading al-Qaida lieutenant Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in March 2002. At his trial, Beghal denied ever meeting the Saudi-born Palestinian, said to be a link between Osama bin Laden and many of al-Qaida’s operational cells.
In Dubai, Beghal supposedly told Dubai authorities of a plot to target U.S. interests in France and identified a Tunisian accomplice, former professional soccer player Nizar Trabelsi, who was to enter the U.S. Embassy wearing a bomb belt.
Beghal said the confession was extracted through torture that he claimed included inserting instruments such as knitting needles into his genitals.
Trabelsi was convicted in Belgium in September 2003 after admitting to plans to drive a car bomb into a Belgian air base where U.S. nuclear weapons are believed stored.
The other lead suspect, Kamel Daoudi, 30, was sentenced to nine years in prison. Daoudi, a computer expert who also trained in Afghanistan, was arrested in Britain, where he fled ahead of a police sweep in France.
According to prosecutors, Daoudi was to send information about preparations for the embassy attack to Afghanistan via the Internet — and receive the green light for the attack in the same way.
Beghal and Daoudi, both of Algerian origin, spoke at length during the trial about their religious commitment but denied being Islamic radicals ready to commit terror attacks.
Asked if he considered himself a radical, Beghal testified: “I am a Muslim and Muslim to the hilt.”