By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 15, 2008
PARIS, May 14 -- A French judge on Wednesday convicted seven men on terrorism charges for recruiting young French Muslims to fight against U.S. forces in Iraq.
Prosecutors alleged that the seven -- five Frenchmen, a Moroccan and an Algerian -- helped send about a dozen French fighters to training camps linked to the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The investigation of an alleged recruiting ring started four years ago after a young Frenchman was found dead in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. The discovery fueled nationwide concern that France's poor immigrant communities could become fertile recruiting grounds for disenfranchised Muslim youths who might then turn to suicide attacks against European targets.
Over the years, investigators have found evidence of fewer than 20 French citizens who traveled to Iraq to participate in the war.
The judge Wednesday handed down sentences ranging from 18 months to seven years for the defendants, three of whom were ordered released for time served awaiting trial.
Each of the men confessed to traveling to Iraq, but denied participation in any terrorist cell. All were convicted of "criminal association with a terrorist enterprise," which carries a maximum 10-year sentence.
Judge Jacqueline Rebeyrotte said the group's leader, Farid Benyettou, 27, used religious teachings to recruit young men for Iraq. She said in her ruling that he provided weapons, training and travel through Syria to Iraq. He was sentenced to six years.
During the trial, Benyettou -- a former janitor turned street preacher -- told the judge he had merely answered questions about Islam from curious young Muslims in his neighborhood.
French police interrogation documents viewed by the Associated Press during the trial reportedly indicated that Benyettou told police, "I taught that suicide attacks are legitimate under Islam."
Boubakeur el-Hakim, whose brother was killed in Iraq, and who during a French radio interview from Baghdad in 2003 beckoned Paris friends to join him in Iraq, received the stiffest sentence, seven years.
Defense attorney Martin Pradel described the sentences as "extremely severe" but did not comment on whether any of the men would appeal.