The prosecutors in the trial of 138 Muslim men and women which opened in Paris on September 1 did not even bother to present any evidence of guilt, relying instead on mere innuendo and assertions that the accused had maintained links with ‘terrorist groups’ in Algeria before their arrest in 1994 and 1995. And the accused, many of whom had been locked up like convicted criminals since then, suffered the added indignity of being herded into a converted gymnasium adjacent to a prison to be tried for their political and religious beliefs. Even livestock for export are treated with greater respect when gathered for shipment.
The prosecution’s case is mainly confined to the allegation that the accused belonged to a vast network of logistical support for armed Islamic groups with its headquarters in the Paris region. One of the absurd innuendoes presented as evidence was the claim by the prosecution that the arrest of the accused had prevented any terrorist attacks in France similar to the 1995 bombings in Lyon and Paris, although none of them has been charged with involvement in the bombings or any other ‘terrorist’ incident.
The political nature of the trial is also demonstrated by the manner of the accused’s arrest. They were arrested after surveillance of a Muslim educational organization, Amet, which ran a Qur’anic school in Paris claimed by the French authorities to be an arms depot and a fundraising unit.
The aim of the arrests was to root out any opposition to the Algerian government by French Muslims or North African nationals in France. The French government was in fact so desperate to succeed that it had even put public pressure on Britain to extradite Algerian nationals residing in the United Kingdom. One of those extradited as a result, Muhammad Kerrouche, is now one of the accused. He was extradited in December last year on the basis of an unsubstantiated allegation that he was responsible for ‘overseeing a European-wide terrorist logistical network.’
The word ‘network’ has now apparently become a dirty term when applied to Islamic groups. Shaikh Osama Bin Laden is, for instance, accused of running and financing a ‘terrorist network.’ US president Bill Clinton justified his terrorist missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan on the need to break up Bin Laden’s alleged international network of terrorist organizations. In the land of ‘liberty and fraternity,’ belonging to a Muslim network is now a sufficient basis for prosecution as a criminal.
One of the Algerian Muslims arrested in the wake of the swoop on the Qur’anic school run by Amet was Muhammad Chalabi who is now charged with raising money and arms for anti-government forces in Algeria. Held in custody since November 1994, his only ‘crime’ is to have joined the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in 1991 after a short stay in Algeria.
The prosecution claims that he provided hideouts for Algerian terrorists but do not deny that they have no evidence to link him to the discovery of an arms cache. It is apparently enough nowadays to play host to a fellow Muslim or help out a Muslim friend in financial difficulties to attract the attention of the French secret police with the probable result of ending up as a ‘terrorist suspect.’
The defence counsel for Chalabi, Isabelle Coutant Peyre, says that no evidence has been presented of her client’s link to ‘fundamentalist groups,’ and that the only demonstrated connection between the 138 accused is that they share the same religion of Islam. When the presiding judge, Bruno Steinmann, opened the proceedings on the first day of the trial and named Chalabi as an Algerian, the accused cut him short. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I am not an Algerian. I am a Muslim who has nothing to do with the military despots in Algeria. They are the Algerians but I am a Muslim.’
Chalabi’s lawyer is convinced that the trial arose from the French government’s decision to help the Algerian regime ride out any opposition to its cancellation of the 1992 elections which the FIS was poised to win. She and the other defence lawyers will argue that the 1994 and 1995 arrests of the accused, and the publicity given to the arrests, were meant to show the determination of Paris to help Algiers.
One of the dubious pieces of ‘evidence’ presented by the prosecution is the allegation that some of the accused received training as guerrillas in Afghanistan. In other words they are ‘Afghan Arabs’ - a blanket charge used in Egyptian and Algerian courts to secure the conviction of Islamic activists, opposed to the corrupt regimes, as terrorists.
Even more astonishing, the prosecution advances as proof of the charges that a number of the accused have fought in Bosnia to help Bosnian Muslims resist genocide. France takes credit, unjustifiably, for ending Serbia’s war on Bosnian Muslims.
The last two allegations alone demonstrate the political nature of the trial, which many of the defence lawyers and their clients have decided to boycott. For instance, on the third day of the trial only two of the 60 lawyers were present along with about 50 of the accused as the hearings opened. On the same day the presiding judge suspended the trial, originally expected to last two months, as scuffles took place in the dock and defendants walked out.
But in the final analysis, it is the French legal and judicial systems, not the accused, that are in the dock.
Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1998