6 Former Gitmo Inmates on Trial in Paris

The Associated Press
Monday, July 3, 2006; 6:03 PM

PARIS -- Six Frenchmen freed after years in the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison went on trial in a Paris court Monday on charges of links to terrorism.

The suspects were detained by U.S. forces in or near Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion to depose the Taliban government in late 2001. Prosecutors began the trial by recounting modern Afghan history and briefly questioning the defendants.

Former detainee Imad Kanouni told the court he traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 to pursue religious education.

"I was ready to die for a good cause, defend people who were attacked in their countries," he said, insisting he did not agree with the ideas of Osama bin Laden and never visited al-Qaida military training camps.

Another suspect, 25-year-old Nizar Sassi, used the witness stand to denounce the U.S. prison camp. He said it was at Guantanamo, not during his travels, that he discovered religion.

"They took everything away from us. They left us with one thing: the Quran," Sassi said, referring to the Muslim holy book.

Sassi went to Afghanistan and spent time in training camps. He went with another defendant, Mourad Benchellali, both lured their by Benchellali's brother, Menad, who was recently convicted in the so-called Chechen network trial for being part of a network helping Islamic rebels in Chechnya.

The trial is expected to run two weeks. The men, who spent between two and three years at Guantanamo, face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of "criminal association with a terrorist enterprise."

Their time at Guantanamo would not be deducted from any sentence here.

The seven French citizens held at Guantanamo all were released in 2004 or 2005 and delivered to French authorities.

One was freed immediately with no charges filed, after French judicial officials said he had no link to Islamic extremism. Five were released but put under investigation and are now on trial. A sixth currently on trial was never freed.

Most defendants were expected to plead not guilty.

Kanouni's lawyer, Felix de Bellay, called the trial "intellectually as well as legally shocking."

Another defendant, Khaled ben Mustafa, told the court that he had been "sold" to U.S. forces in December 2001 by Pakistani villagers after he fled Afghanistan.

"It's not because you go to Afghanistan that you're a terrorist," he said, asking the court not to confuse the facts.

"I didn't see anything," ben Mustafa said. "I stayed three weeks. There was Sept. 11., and we fled."

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that President Bush overstepped his authority in ordering military trials for some Guantanamo Bay detainees. The United States holds about 450 men at Guantanamo on suspicion of links to al-Qaida or the Taliban.

© 2006 The Associated Press