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U.S. hands over first French terror suspects from Gitmo

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

PARIS -- Four French detainees held by U.S. authorities for more than two years at Guantanamo Bay returned home Tuesday -- the first French nationals to be released from the U.S. base after months of talks -- and negotiations were underway for the transfer of three others.

The four suspects arrived by plane at a military base in Normandy and were taken by bus to Paris to appear before counterintelligence agents and anti-terrorism Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere. The men -- Mourad Benchellali, Imad Kanouni, Nizar Sassi and Brahim Yadel -- were apprehended in the U.S. campaign that toppled Afghanistan's Taliban regime.

While historic allies, France and the United States have been at odds for more than a year over the best way to fight terrorism, Turkey's bid to join the European Union, the conflict in the Middle East and the war in Iraq.

President Jacques Chirac said the handover was the "result of long efforts" between Washington and Paris. He said his government would continue discussions with American authorities to free the remaining three French detainees at Guantanamo.

They are Ridouane Khalid, Khaled Ben Mustafa and Mustaq Ali Patel, who has both French and Indian citizenship.

After months of international criticism for holding suspects at Guantanamo Bay without charge, the United States has been gradually releasing some detainees from its naval base in Cuba.

"The decision to transfer or release a detainee is based on many factors, including whether the detainee is of further intelligence value to the United States and whether he is believed to pose a threat to the United States if released," the Pentagon said in a statement.

With the release of the four French suspects, 129 Guantanamo prisoners have been freed and 22 have been transferred to the control of other governments, the Pentagon said. Seven have been returned to Russia, four to Saudi Arabia, one to Spain, one to Sweden and five to Britain. About 600 inmates remain at Guantanamo.

The State Department said the release was a result of "the cooperation we've enjoyed with France on this matter and we look forward to continued close partnership in the war on terror."

Under French anti-terror laws, the four men can be held for questioning for up to 96 hours. They may then be placed under investigation for criminal association with a terrorist enterprise, officials said.

There were few details about what officials suspected of the men, most of whom were of North African descent but grew up in working-class French suburbs.

However, at least two of the detainees have been sought by French investigators.

Yadel is wanted in connection with an investigation into a training camp set up by Islamic militants in the late 1990s in the Fontainebleau forest south of Paris. Some of those at the camp are believed to have traveled to Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Benchellali is the son of Chellali Benchellali, an imam from the Lyon suburb of Venissieux who was arrested in connection with a suspected terrorist network that authorities say was planning attacks on Russian interests in France. The imam remains in custody.

Many of those held at Guantanamo Bay are believed to be foot soldiers from the al-Qaida terror network and the deposed Taliban regime.

Defense lawyer Jacques Debray, speaking to The Associated Press, expressed "great satisfaction" that his clients -- Benchellali, 24, and Sassi, 22, -- were coming home. The two are from the southeastern city of Lyon.

William Bourdon, another lawyer for the two men, said France stressed to the United States that the future of the suspects would be left up to French courts.

"Consequently, if there were very strong pressures [by the U.S. government] that they be locked up, the weakness or emptiness of the charges supposedly collected on them should lead to a very fast release after they are taken into custody," he said.

The suspects have made no public comments. They have not spoken to the lawyers hired by their families and may not even be informed that they have legal counsel in France, said another attorney, Paul-Albert Iweins.

"The important thing to know now is the mental, physical and psychological health of these youths, and what the conditions of their detention were for 30 months," said Venissieux Mayor Andre Gerin.

He said the Foreign Ministry had been negotiating for the handover of the suspects since November.

Sassi's brother said the family was concerned about his well-being but is nonetheless relieved. "Today, even if he is jailed, we can visit," Aymane Sassi told reporters. "Their situation in France isn't comparable [to Guantanamo]. So their return is in any case a liberation."

The International Committee of the Red Cross and human rights groups have expressed reservations about the U.S. military's practice of holding the prisoners at Guantanamo without charges.

The Pentagon has held most of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay without charge for more than two years on grounds that they are "enemy combatants" with no right to contest their detention in U.S. courts.

The Pentagon set up "Combatant Status Review Tribunals" for Guantanamo detainees after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 28 that they have a right to bring challenges before U.S. civilian courts.


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