French terror plot: 25 convicted


Wednesday, June 14, 2006 Posted: 0959 GMT (1759 HKT)

PARIS, France (AP) -- A court on Wednesday convicted 25 people for their roles in preparing an attack in France in support of Islamic fighters in Chechnya.

The five top defendants received prison terms of 8 to 10 years, while the others received lesser sentences. Two were acquitted. All but one defendant had been accused of helping Islamic fighters in Chechnya in what prosecutors said underscored the "globalization of the jihad movement."

Prosecutors were unable to prove strong suspicions that the attack was to have involved chemicals, even though investigators found equipment, including a protective suit, and chemicals including the highly toxic ricin.

In handing down sentences, the court followed the prosecutor's office by giving the maximum 10-year term to the group's alleged chemicals expert, Menad Benchellali. However, Menad's father, Chellali Benchellali, an imam, or prayer leader, in the Lyon suburb of Venissieux, received only an 18-month suspended prison term -- far lower than the prosecution's demand for six years behind bars.

The court convicted 24 defendants of criminal association in relation with a terrorist enterprise, a broad charge used by France to sweep wide in bringing terror suspects to justice. One other was convicted of using false papers.

The Benchellali family was at the center of the case, with Menad's mother, Hafsa, and brother, Hafed, also on trial for roles in the plot to carry out an attack in France.

The network was dismantled in two waves, the first in December 2002 as investigators stormed two houses in the Paris suburb of La Courneuve and the nearby town of Romainville. They found gas canisters, fuses, chemicals and a suit to protect against chemical attacks.

During a second wave of arrests, in January 2004 in Venissieux, in southeast France, investigators found chemical products, including ricin, and definitively broke up the network.

The prosecution contended that the group was plotting an attack in Paris, but could not define the target. The Russian Embassy, a police station and the Eiffel Tower were mentioned during interrogations.

"These convictions profit the United States, Algeria and Russia," said Isabelle Coutant, lawyer for defendant Merouane Benhamed. "They have been convicted because they are Muslims," she claimed.

Prosecutor Anne Kostomaroff, profiling the network, put the origins of the group in Chlef, Algeria, in 1999, where eight members had refused an Algerian government amnesty plan for Islamic insurgents in the North African country. Various members then traveled to Spain, France, Italy and the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, while a core group formed in the Paris region in late 2000 to create a support ring for Islamic militants in the war-ravaged Russian republic of Chechnya.

However, the Benchellali family has long been established in Lyon. Imam Benchellali is known to have occasionally used his makeshift mosque on the ground floor of a high-rise building to collect funds for Islamic fighters in Chechnya.