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French court reverses convictions of 5 former Gitmo detainees

Former Guantanamo Detainee, Mourad Benchellali

Former Guantanamo Detainee, Mourad Benchellali

The  New York Times is reporting:

A French appeals court on Tuesday overturned terrorist conspiracy convictions for five former inmates of the Guantánamo Bay prison camp who had been tried and convicted in 2007, after they were returned to France.

The court ruled that information gathered by French intelligence officials in interrogations at Guantánamo Bay violated French rules for permissible evidence, and that there was no other proof of wrongdoing.

None of the men, who were originally captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, is currently in jail, having been given time off for time already served.

The Times explains that:

the ruling is likely to be seen as a precedent for similar cases, as well as inject more uncertainty into the sensitive process of repatriating inmates being released from Guantánamo Bay, which President Obama has vowed to shut down. Various European countries have expressed willingness in principle to take some of the inmates, depending on their potential for dangerous behavior and whether the United States also accepts some. Some European countries prefer that the European Union come up with a unified position, so Washington cannot play one country against another while trying to negotiate placements.

The case is also interesting because it involves Mourad Benchellali, now 26, a member of a family with numerous other connections to jihadist violence. His older brother, Menad, was arrested in 2002 on suspicion of planning to bomb Russian targets, including the Russian embassy in Paris, as a response to the Chechen war. He was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Their father, Chellali Benchellali, a Muslim cleric from a suburb of Lyon, was arrested in connection with the plot to avenge Russia’s crackdown in Muslim Chechnya. He had previously gone to Bosnia to help Muslims in the Bosnian civil war. He was given an 18-month suspended sentence; his wife, Hafsa, was given a two-year suspended sentence and another son, Hafed, was sentenced to four years in prison.

Mourad, who was at Guantánamo, wrote an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times in June 2006, in which he said that in 2001, when he was 19, “I made the mistake of listening to my older brother and going to Afghanistan in what I though was a dream vacation.” His brother’s friends, he wrote, sent him to an Al Qaeda training camp. He spent two and a half years in Guantánamo as an “enemy combatant” and said he could not “describe in just a few lines the suffering and the torture.”

He and other French detainees were returned to France in 2004 and 2005 following pressure from the French president then, Jacques Chirac, who promised that “justice will be done.” They were immediately arrested; their trial produced the 2007 conviction — on charges of criminal association with a terrorist enterprise — that was overturned on Tuesday. During the trial, the men said that they had spent time in Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan but had never used their new combat skills.

Very interesting. This speaks volumes about the way in which other states have treated accused terrorists. One has to wonder if courts in others states will follow suit.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.