28 July 2004
Four Frenchmen held in the US prison at Guantanamo Bay returned to France yesterday and may face minor charges of "consorting with terrorists".
The decision by America to expel four of the seven French nationals in Camp Delta follows months of negotiations with Paris. Last month, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Guantanamo inmates have a right to challenge their detention in American courts.
Paris had initially expected six inmates to be freed and officials were not claiming that yesterday's release marked any particular warming in Franco-American relations. They suggested it was part of a "spring- clean" by American authorities, who were emptying the camp of all "minor" prisoners before Washington faces an avalanche of lawsuits.
French intelligence services regard the four men released yesterday as petits soldats du djihad (foot soldiers of the Islamist holy war), the newspaper Le Monde says. The men, who are unlikely to be freed soon, arrived at an air base near Evreux in Normandy and were taken to Paris by the French internal security service, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire. They are being questioned by the anti-terrorism unit, led by an investigating judge.
Despite pleas by the family and lawyers - and admissions from French sources that there is little concrete evidence against them - they are expected to be remanded in custody and may be accused formally of "associating with wrong-doers, engaged in a terrorist enterprise". The four, who were captured by US troops in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, were named as: Mourad Benchellali, 23, from Vénissieux, near Lyons, whose brother and father were arrested on suspicion of terrorist activities in January; Nizar Sassi, 24, his friend, also from Venissieux (both went to Pakistan in 2001 on false passports); Imad Kanouni, 26, born in Morocco (not suspected of illegal or terrorist activities in France); and Brahim Yadel, 33, from Aubervilliers, north of Paris, who was sentenced in his absence to a year in jail for his part in an unsuccessful plot to bomb the 1998 World Cup in France.
A spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry said: "We are pursuing our discussions with the American authorities to secure the handover of the other French detainees from Guantanamo as soon as possible." The French Justice Minister, Dominique Perven, was initially promised that six French inmates would be released after he visited the US Attorney General, John Ashcroft, in May.
The US authorities initially asked for guarantees from the French, including, to the indignation of the French press, a guarantee that the prisoners would be "treated humanely". The two other French inmates were not "sent home", because they may have refused to sign a paper saying they wanted to return to France.
The seventh French inmate is an Indian national who gained French citizenship by marrying a Frenchwoman on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion. His status is in dispute between the French, American and Indian governments. Paris had refused to apply formally for the extradition of French inmates because it does not recognise the legality of the Guantanamo camp. A senior police officer said the four had been granted a "voluntary, accompanied return".