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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 July, 2004, 16:46 GMT 17:46 UK
Guantanamo group faces French law

By Hugh Schofield

Detainees at Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (file photo)
Many French people believe the detainees were treated unjustly
It would be wrong to say that the fate of the Guantanamo Seven has particularly exercised the consciences of ordinary French men and women.

Most people have been vaguely aware that several of their fellow nationals have been in custody at the US base since 2002, but the campaign to have them repatriated has been low-key and little-reported.

Indeed lawyers for the men complain that the French government has been unduly supine in its attempts to have them brought home - drawing unfavourable comparisons with, of all places, Britain.

"We've had the feeling for a long time that we were facing a terrible silence - a wall of indifference. At first the official line was that discretion was the most effective tactic, but after a few months that was shown to be useless," said Jacques Debray, who is lawyer for two of the men, Nizar Sassi and Mourad Benchellali.

"When we had a public meeting at the European parliament not a single French deputy turned up. Meanwhile British members of parliament were constantly putting pressure on the government there. It would seem the attachment to the principle of law is more firmly anchored over there than it is here," he said.

But if French interest in the detainees has been muted, it is nonetheless universally accepted that their treatment by the US has been inhumane and purposeless.

US policy condemned

It does not take much to get French people to think badly of the US under its current leadership, and the detention conditions at Guantanamo have merely confirmed the popular view that Washington is behaving like a bully.

"No one denies that there are probably some real terrorists linked to al-Qaeda among the 600 prisoners at Guantanamo. But these suspicions hardly justify the judicial and physical treatment meted out to them since their arrest," Le Monde newspaper said in its leader Tuesday.

"History shows that countries that choose to fight against terrorism or oppression by non-democratic means never succeed," it said.

As with the Iraq war, the widely-held view is that America has squandered the huge stockpile of international sympathy and support it had after the 11 September attacks by acting in defiance of international law.

Little sympathy

But none of this means there is much sympathy for the French Guantanamo detainees, who - the four of them at least who have so far been repatriated - must now face the rigours, and injustices, of France's own judicial system.

Guantanamo guard
Estimated 590 terror suspects from about 40 countries held
139 already released
12 "transferred for continued detention" in home countries
Four detainees charged
In practice this means they can be held for four days before seeing a judge, who can then place them under investigation on terrorist charges and order them detained till the trial. By past experience that could be years.

There is no question that all the men travelled to Taleban-ruled Afghanistan, and investigators here believe they may well have been receiving military training there.

One of the men - Mourad Benchellali - has a brother and father facing possible charges in France over an alleged plot to attack Russian targets.

But whether any of these suspicions amount to breaches of French law is open to question. The men probably face another long wait in jail before they know what their judicial fate will be.

But at least this time there is a process, with a judge and a prosecutor - and a defence.

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