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French Push Limits in Fight On Terrorism

'High Pressure Zones'

Terrorism is "a very new and unprecedented belligerence, a new form of war and we should be flexible in how we fight it," said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a senior French anti-terrorism judge. "When you have your enemy in your own territory, whether in Europe or in North America, you can't use military forces because it would be inappropriate and contrary to the law. So you have to use new forces, new weapons."

At times, French authorities have pursued terrorism cases outside their borders, taking over investigations from countries unwilling or unable to arrest suspects on their own.

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)

Last year, Christian Ganczarski, a German national and alleged al Qaeda operative, arrived in Saudi Arabia for a religious pilgrimage to Mecca. A Muslim convert who became a personal acquaintance of bin Laden, Ganczarski was suspected by French authorities of helping to organize the April 2002 bombing of a synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, which killed 21 people.

Saudi officials prepared to deport Ganczarski back to Germany, but when German officials indicated they lacked the evidence to arrest him, Saudi authorities arranged a detour, putting him on a flight with a connection through Paris. When Ganczarski arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport on June 2, 2003, he was detained for questioning by French police.

Seventeen months later Ganczarski remains in a French jail, under investigation for alleged conspiracy in the Tunisian attack. French investigators have claimed jurisdiction in the case because French nationals were among the casualties in the Tunisia attack.

Also last year, French counterterrorism officials tipped off the Australian government that a visiting French tourist, Willie Brigitte, was allegedly part of a terrorist cell in Sydney that was planning attacks during rugby World Cup events there. Lacking direct evidence of their own, Australian officials deported Brigitte to France in October 2003, where he was arrested. He also remains in jail, where he is subject to regular interrogations.

The French anti-terrorism judge overseeing both cases is Bruguiere, an investigating magistrate who under French law is granted great prosecutorial powers, including the ability to sign search warrants, order wiretaps and interrogate suspects.

Over the past decade, Bruguiere has ordered the arrests of more than 500 people on suspicion of "conspiracy in relation to terrorism," a broad charge that gives him leeway to lock up suspects while he carries out investigations.

"There is no equivalent anywhere else in Europe. This provision is very, very efficient for judicial rule in tackling terrorist support networks," Bruguiere said in an interview. "Fighting terrorism is like the weather. You have high pressure zones and low pressure zones. Countries that have low pressure zones" attract terrorism.

'Erosion of Civil Liberties'

Bruguiere estimated that 90 percent of the defendants he has indicted and brought to trial have been convicted. Critics assert, however, that most people arrested on orders of anti-terrorism judges in France never face terror-related charges and eventually are freed. Official statistics on French terrorism prosecutions are not readily available, so it is difficult to assess the outcome of such cases.

William Bourdon, a Paris attorney representing Nizar Sassi and Mourad Benchellali, two of the four French nationals released from Guantanamo Bay in July, said his clients were rearrested not because they were suspected of any crimes in France, but merely because they had gone to Afghanistan before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Under French law, his clients could remain jailed for up to three years until authorities complete their investigation. "What has been done here is absolutely unfair," he said. "There's a high level of inhumanity in the decision."

Michel Tubiana, a lawyer and president of the Human Rights League in France, told the story of a chicken vendor he once represented to illustrate how easy it is for suspects to be arrested under French anti-terror laws.

He said the vendor, Hakim Mokhfi, was detained in June 2002 after authorities learned he had gone to a camp in Pakistan before Sept. 11, 2001, and knew a person who was an acquaintance of Richard C. Reid, the Briton who pleaded guilty in the United States to charges of trying to blow up an American Airlines flight with explosives concealed in his shoes in December 2001.

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