Four Algerians sentenced for French bomb plot

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

FRANKFURT, Germany -- Four Algerians, three of whom admitted training in Afghan terror camps, were convicted Monday of plotting to bomb a French Christmas market and sentenced to prison terms of between 10 and 12 years.

The four were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, conspiring to plant a bomb and of weapons violations, capping a trial that opened under intense scrutiny last year but never exposed the inner workings of al-Qaida in Europe as prosecutors had hoped.

Prosecutors claimed the defendants were part of a network of predominantly North African extremists called the Nonaligned Mujahideen, with ties to al-Qaida. But the government dropped charges of belonging to a terrorist organization in January to speed up the trial.

Salim Boukari received the longest sentence, 12 years, followed by Fouhad Sabour, 11 1/2 years. Both had denied intent to kill, insisting they targeted an empty synagogue in Strasbourg, France.

The five judges of the Frankfurt state court called that argument "absurd" and said the four plotted to detonate a bomb in the market near the cathedral in Strasbourg on New Year's Eve 2000, when it was packed with holiday revelers.

The defendants had planned "a horrific bloodbath at a peaceful Christmas market that could have hit anyone, including unsuspecting, defenseless people," Presiding Judge Karlheinz Zeiher said in reading the verdict.

The group, which assembled in Frankfurt in early December 2000, had planned to blow up pressure cookers packed with explosives, a technique they learned in Afghan camps, Zeiher said.

In Germany, they bought chemicals at pharmacies across the country for a homemade bomb, which they planned to make in two rented apartments.

city of Baden-Baden, near the French border, Zeiher said.

"By planning such an act in a European city like Strasbourg, they wanted to create as much horror and fear as possible and to hit a vital nerve by killing Christians, Jews as well as other people," Zeiher said.

Alleged co-organizer Aeroubi Beandalis -- the only one to admit to charges that the cell intended to target revelers -- received 10 years. Lamine Maroni, who was ejected early on for his ranting invective but remained silent throughout the trial, was sentenced to 11 years.

Prosecutors had demanded 12 1/2 years for Boukari, 11 1/2 years for Sabour and 10 years for Maroni and Beandalis. They did not explain why they sought less than the maximum sentence of 15 years for all defendants.

A fifth suspect was dropped from the trial in August because of a lack of evidence.

The trial opened April 16 under extremely tight security. Prosecutors had hoped that the suspects' testimony would reveal the inner workings of al-Qaida's network in Europe.

Yet while three of the men admitted training in Afghan camps from 1999 to 2000 and detailed how they were recruited by other extremists while living in Europe, their statements provided no substantially new information.

Prosecutors based their case largely on a homemade videotape of the brightly lit Christmas market and Strasbourg cathedral made by Boukari and Sabour weeks before the attack allegedly was to take place.

On the tape, Boukari's voice can be heard saying: "These are the enemies of God, they will burn in hell." Prosecutors also cited the discovery of several pressure cookers and about 66 pounds of chemicals that could be used to make explosives, as well as a notebook full of jottings about how to mix homemade bombs, seized at one of the two Frankfurt apartments where the group was arrested on Christmas Day, 2000.

Mohammed Bensakhria, the alleged leader of the Frankfurt-based group -- known as the Meliani cell -- is believed to have fled Germany but was arrested in Spain in June 2001 and extradited to France.

He is awaiting trial for plotting attacks including the foiled Christmas market bombing. Bensakhria's alias is Meliani.

German prosecutors have never elaborated on their reasons for dropping the charge of belonging to a terrorist organization, which carries a 10-year sentence.

However, they would have had to prove that the terror cell formed in Germany -- not abroad -- under laws in force before tougher German anti-terror legislation introduced after the Sept. 11 attacks.

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