Mauritania tries 'Al-Qaeda linked kidnappers'
Four members of an Al-Qaeda linked group went on trial Tuesday for kidnapping three Spanish aid workers in Mauritania last year, with prosecutors seeking life imprisonment with hard labour.
The trial got underway in the capital Nouakchott while two of the Spaniards are still being held by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the northern Malian desert.
The three Spaniards, two men and a woman working for a Barcelona-based NGO, were travelling in the last vehicle of a humanitarian convoy when they were abducted between Nouakchott and Nouadhibou on November 29.
Among the defendants was a 52-year-old Malian national, Omar Sid-Ahmed Ould Hamma, who was accused of being the key figure behind the kidnappings.
Prosecutors called for life imprisonment with hard labour, plus the seizure of all his property. Hamma pleaded not guilty.
Authorities claim Hamma, nicknamed Omar the Sahrawi, carried out the kidnapping himself along with two other Malians who are being tried in absentia.
The other defendants, who included a Mauritanian shepherd of 75 who broke down in tears and said he had been tortured, also pleaded not guilty.
In total, 11 men are being tried in the case. Prosecutors sought two and three years sentences respectively for another two men, a Mauritanian and a Western Saharan who appeared freely at the court, for assisting the kidnappers.
Three other men who have escaped arrest were also being tried in absentia, but the charges were not immediately available.
"You are accused of endangering the life and safety of people, their kidnap and their sequestration," while "using Mauritanian territory to commit terrorist acts against citizens of a foreign country," court president Kheyi Ould Mohamed told Hamma.
"I don't recognise these charges," Hamma replied. When told that he had acknowledged them to the prosecutor and police, he said, "If I did say that, I must have been lying."
Prosecutors say the kidnap gang were paid mercenaries of one of AQIM's leaders, an Algerian named Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and an arrest warrant was issued.
Investigators say the Spaniards were taken through Moroccan-controlled territory in the Western Sahara and into a desert region in the extreme north of Mali.
Female hostage Alicia Gamez, 39, was released on March 10 after three months in captivity, but her two countrymen, Albert Vilalta, 35, and Roque Pascual, 50, are still in the hands of the Islamist group.
An Italian couple kidnapped in December is also still being held.
The kidnappers have demanded payment of several million dollars in ransom and the release of Islamist prisoners held in Mauritania, which along with neighbouring desert states Mali and Niger has witnessed a rise in terrorism-related kidnappings of westerners.
© 2010 AFP