Four Guantanamo detainees return to France

27th July 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, July 27 (AFP) - Four of seven French nationals held at the US prison complex at Guantanamo Bay were handed over to French authorities Tuesday and flown back to France, where they were immediately taken into custody.

PARIS, July 27 (AFP) - Four of seven French nationals held at the US prison complex at Guantanamo Bay were handed over to French authorities Tuesday and flown back to France, where they were immediately taken into custody.

Their transfer had been requested by the French anti-terrorism prosecutor Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who has been investigating the men since November 2002 on possible terrorism charges, and was approved after France gave guarantees that they will face judicial proceedings.

After a stopover in the Azores, the four were flown into the Evreux military base west of Paris from where they were to be taken to the French capital for questioning by the domestic intelligence agency, the Directorate for Territorial Surveillance.

An agreement was reached earlier in the month on the handover of six of the seven French detainees, who have been held at the facility in Cuba without charge since being seized by US forces in Afghanistan.

Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said, "Like other countries have done, we proposed to the American authorities the repatriation of French nationals and they will be handed over to the French justice system.

"Our concern is a humanitarian one."

The men can be held for four days before they must go before a judge, who may then place them under investigation for "criminal association in relation with a terrorist organisation" and order their continued detention.

"It is our understanding that these French nationals will be investigated and prosecuted as appropriate by French law enforcement and judicial authorities," deputy State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said in Washington.

A lawyer for two of the men, Jacques Debray, called for an immediate psychological and physical check-up of his clients, saying "we have reasons to be worried about their state of health" after months of detention in Guantanamo. Detention conditions at that US military camp have come under scrutiny since the revelation that US soldiers in Iraq tortured Iraqi prisoners.

French judicial sources quoted in Le Monde newspaper Tuesday described the four as "the jihad's petty foot-soldiers" and said the case against them was thin.

Officials named the four as Mourad Benchellali, Imad Kanouni, Nizar Sassi and Brahim Yadel. It was unclear why the two others - Ridouane Khalid and Khaled Ben Mustafa - were not included. The seventh man, Indian-born Mustaq Ali Patel, was not covered in the deal.

Like most of the estimated 600 prisoners at the US base in Cuba, the French detainees were captured between the end of 2001 and early in 2002, when the United States went after Al-Qaeda and their Taliban hosts following the September 11 attacks.

Their repatriation follows the transfer of several other Europeans, including five British men who were flown home in March. Altogether some 135 detainees have been sent back to their home countries from Guantanamo.

The Pentagon said Tuesday it expected to release additional prisoners from Guantanamo.

Benchellali is the brother of Menad Benchellali, who was arrested in France in December 2002 in an investigation into an alleged "Chechen connection" in which Islamists were said to have been plotting attacks on Russian targets in France to avenge the bloodshed in Chechnya.

Benchellali's father, imam of a mosque in the Lyon suburb of Venissieux, and his younger brother Hafed are also in custody.

The lawyer for one of the two men who were left off the flight said the decision to repatriate only four of the six was a "test by the Americans to see how the French authorities react."

"The fate of the four who return to France will necessarily influence what happens to the three others," said Jean-Marc Florand, who represents Khaled Ben Mustafa.

The mayor of Venissieux outside Lyon in the southeast, Andre Gerin, hailed the return of the four as "a victory for the law... We have achieved our objective. Now we have to let justice do its work."

In Venissieux supporters of Benchelalli and Sassi held a party to celebrate the return of the two men, Sassis's sister declaring it to be "the best day of my life."


Subject: French news

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