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Tuesday, 22 January, 2002, 22:49 GMT
Bosnia's Arab handover questioned
Riot police confront protesters outside prison
Supporters of the six Algerians confronted police
By Alix Kroeger in Sarajevo

The six Algerians suspected of involvement in extremist Islamist organisations in Bosnia-Hercegovina are now in the custody of the American government - but the ripples from Bosnia's decision to hand them over are still spreading.

The head of the United Nations human rights agency in Bosnia, Madeleine Rees, has said the men's removal circumvented the rule of law, and there was no legal basis for what appeared to be an arbitrary arrest and detention.


This was an extra-judicial removal from sovereign territory

Madeliene Rees,
UN Human Rights Agency
The Algerians were handed over despite a ruling by Bosnia's Human Rights Chamber ordering the local authorities to stop their extradition until legal appeals could be heard.

"They [the Human Rights Chamber] were outraged," said another official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"It was a scandal. The Americans invented the chamber, they came up with the goals - such as the rule of law and human rights - and then they tell the Muslim-Croat Federation government not to care. This undermines everything the Americans do, and everything they financed."

Legality questioned

Five of the men were naturalised Bosnians, but they were stripped of their citizenship in November - part of the Bosnian Government's review of all naturalisations granted during and after the 1992-95 war.

The men had appealed to the Chamber, which is due to hear their case on 11 February.

But Karen Williams, a spokeswoman for the US embassy in Sarajevo, said the handover had taken place in accordance with the law.

"The Bosnian Government opted to deport some of its citizens, and the US said it would accept them," she said.

Guantanamo Bay
The six are now thought to be on their way to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba
Madeleine Rees disagreed. In her opinion, this was neither a deportation nor an extradition.

She stopped just short of calling it a kidnapping.

"This was an extra-judicial removal from sovereign territory," she said.

Privately, officials admit that both the international community in Bosnia and the national authorities were under immense pressure from the Americans.

For its part, the Bosnian Government is keen to be seen as backing the US-led "war on terrorism."

Bosnia's Muslims

The aftermath of 11 September was an embarrassment for the Bosnian Government, as renewed attention focused on the presence of several hundred mujahideen, or Islamic holy warriors, who had fought on the government side during the war and settled in Bosnia afterwards. Many of them had been granted Bosnian citizenship.

Serb and Croat nationalists seized on this as evidence that the Bosnian government was dominated by Islamic fundamentalists.

The Bosnian Serb president, Mirko Sarovic, said he had ordered his officials to gather information on the links between the mujahideen and the Bosnian central government.

Zenica division
Islamic fighters backed the Bosnian Government during the civil war
But the majority of Bosnia's Muslims are secular or religious moderates. They see themselves as Europeans first, and Muslims afterwards. They see the Americans as their greatest allies, and now fellow victims of what they describe as "terrorist aggression".

So when the Americans demanded the handover of the six Algerians, the Bosnian Government was disinclined to put obstacles in their way.

Five of the men were arrested on suspicion of making threats against the British and American embassies in Sarajevo. The sixth was arrested after US intelligence said he had made a phone call to one of Osama Bin Laden's senior aides.

But after three months, the Bosnian authorities still could not prove a case against them. On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation ordered the men released, and the Human Rights Chamber issued its injunction against the extradition of four of the group.

US-backed chamber

The decisions of the Chamber - which was set up under the Dayton Peace Accords and is largely funded by the American government - are binding.

Nonetheless, in the early hours of Friday morning, American soldiers spirited the Algerians away, before they could leave the premises of the Sarajevo prison where they had been held.

One of the police vehicles believed to have been used to move the detainees from the prison
Bosnia has also deported other suspected Islamic militants
There were angry scenes outside the prison, as families of the men and radical Islamic activists scuffled with police. Around eight people were injured, none seriously. But the damage to Bosnia's legal system will be more long-lasting.

The Human Rights Chamber's decisions are often unpopular with the different governments.

The Bosnian Serb authorities procrastinated for years before reluctantly allowing the reconstruction of a major mosque to begin.

Similarly, the Muslim-Croat Federation has protested about a ruling by the Chamber that former officers in the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) should be allowed to repossess flats they held in Bosnia before the war.

If the Americans can disregard the rulings of a court they themselves helped set up, there will be little incentive for the Bosnian authorities to comply.

See also:

18 Jan 02 | Europe
Bosnia suspects headed for Cuba
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