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French Push Limits in Fight On Terrorism

Wide Prosecutorial Powers Draw Scant Public Dissent

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 2, 2004; Page A01

PARIS -- In many countries of Europe, former inmates of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been relishing their freedom. In Spain, Denmark and Britain, recently released detainees have railed in public about their treatment at Guantanamo, winning sympathy from local politicians and newspapers. In Sweden, the government has agreed to help one Guantanamo veteran sue his American captors for damages.

Not so in France, where four prisoners from the U.S. naval base were arrested as soon as they arrived home in July, and haven't been heard from since. Under French law, they could remain locked up for as long as three years while authorities decide whether to put them on trial -- a legal limbo that their attorneys charge is not much different than what they faced at Guantanamo.

In a 2003 anti-terrorism raid near Paris, police escort handcuffed women from the offices of an Iranian opposition group, the People's Mujaheddin. (Jacques Brinon -- AP)

Armed with some of the strictest anti-terrorism laws and policies in Europe, the French government has aggressively targeted Islamic radicals and other people deemed a potential terrorist threat. While other Western countries debate the proper balance between security and individual rights, France has experienced scant public dissent over tactics that would be controversial, if not illegal, in the United States and some other countries.

French authorities have expelled a dozen Islamic clerics for allegedly promoting hatred or religious extremism, including a Turkish-born imam who officials said denied that Muslims were involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Since the start of the school year, the government has been enforcing a ban on wearing religious garb in school, a policy aimed largely at preventing Muslim girls from wearing veils.

French counterterrorism officials say their preemptive approach has paid off, enabling them to disrupt plots before they are carried out and to prevent radical cells from forming in the first place. They said tips from informants and close cooperation with other intelligence services led them to thwart planned attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Paris, French tourist sites on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean and other targets.

"There is a reality today: Under the cover of religion there are individuals in our country preaching extremism and calling for violence," Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said at a recent meeting of Islamic leaders in Paris. "It is essential to be opposed to it together and by all means."

Thomas M. Sanderson, a terrorism expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said France has combined its tough law enforcement strategy with a softer diplomatic campaign in the Middle East designed to bolster ties with Islamic countries.

"You do see France making an effort to cast itself as the friendly Western power," as distinct from the United States, he said. "When it comes to counterterrorism operations, France is hard-core. . . . But they are also very cognizant of what public diplomacy is all about."

France has embraced a law enforcement strategy that relies heavily on preemptive arrests, ethnic profiling and an efficient domestic intelligence-gathering network. French anti-terrorism prosecutors and investigators are among the most powerful in Europe, backed by laws that allow them to interrogate suspects for days without interference from defense attorneys.

The nation pursues such policies at a time when France has become well known in the world for criticizing the United States for holding suspected terrorists at Guantanamo without normal judicial protections. French politicians have also loudly protested the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, arguing that it has exacerbated tensions with the Islamic world and has increased the threat of terrorism.

Despite the political discord over Iraq, France's intelligence and counterterrorism officials say they work closely with their American counterparts on terrorism investigations.

With the largest Muslim population in Europe, France is being closely watched in neighboring countries, many of which are tightening their own anti-terror and immigration laws. But even following the Sept. 11 attacks and the March 11 bombings of commuter trains in Madrid, other European countries have been reluctant to fully embrace the French model, part of a legal tradition from the Napoleonic era that has always given prosecutors strong powers.

Britain, for instance, typically takes years to extradite terrorism suspects to other countries and has respected the free-speech rights of imams who praise Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader, and endorse holy war. Until three years ago, Germany did not ban membership in a foreign terrorist organization such as al Qaeda as long as it didn't operate inside the country.

Many of the anti-terror laws and policies in France date to 1986, when the country was grappling with Palestinian and European extremist groups. Since then, the government has modified and expanded those laws several times, gradually giving authorities expanded powers to deport and detain people.

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