France Judges Dead Jihadists but Refuses to Repatriate the Living

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PARIS — The trial this month was exceptional for a country that has resisted repatriating or extraditing terrorism suspects from battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria.

A Paris judge heard cases against 24 men and women charged with links to the Islamic State. Witnesses were called. Prosecutors and defense lawyers made their statements. Verdicts were rendered.

But 19 of the defendants were presumed dead, and all were tried in absentia. It was, as the French news media have called it, a “ghost trial.”

Antoine Ory, one of the defense lawyers, acknowledged as much. “In France, in 2020, we refuse to repatriate the living but we try the dead,” he told the court.

The trial, which concluded last week with convictions for everyone, brought to light one of France’s paradoxes when it comes to handling such cases.

The government wants to prosecute terrorism suspects, hoping to prevent them from falling through legal cracks and trying to piece together how the networks operated for evidence in future trials against the living.

But it does not want the trials conducted on its territory.

Since 2018, France has instead been at the forefront of the European negotiations with the Iraqi government to have European jihadists tried there, with only modest success.

With public opinion firmly against bringing home those who left to fight with the Islamic State, France has agreed to take back only some of its jihadists. The country was a significant provider of foreign Islamic State fighters, with around 1,000 people estimated to have left to join the militant group from 2012 to 2015.

Jean-Charles Brisard, director of the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, a Paris-based research organization, said about 80 French Islamic State fighters were still detained in Iraq and Syria.

“The French position is a political position, based on the refusal of the public opinion to see repatriation happening,” Mr. Brisard said. “But as far as our justice system is concerned, everything is ready to take them back, including the prisons.”

And the courts.

For the last two years, French courts have been trying dozens of jihadists who are presumed dead. The courts have had little choice because intelligence services have not been able to get into the combat zones of Syria and Iraq to verify the deaths.

This month’s trial offered a glimpse into what has become a convoluted approach to counterterrorism, even as France braces itself for the much-awaited trials of those accused of the assault on the newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and of the suspects in the November 2015 attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and other sites in Paris.

France has invested a great deal in adapting its criminal justice system to the jihadist threat and now has some of the most expansive counterterrorism legislation in Europe.

“It is a judiciary that leaves room for interpretation,” said Antoine Mégie, an expert on counterterrorism laws at the University of Rouen, in northern France. “In order to be prosecuted, it is enough to be linked to jihadist activities.”

But this month’s trial showed that the process could also prove Kafkaesque.

The defendant Mr. Ory represented — Quentin Roy, a man from the Paris suburbs who left to fight with the Islamic State in Syria in 2014 — was a case in point.

The court files noted that Mr. Roy presumably blew himself up in Iraq in January 2016, saying he was linked to “military activities that led him to become a suicide bomber.”

“You are trying a man who committed suicide,” Mr. Ory told the court. “Has anyone ever seen such a contradiction?”

Mr. Roy was part of the so-called Sevran network, a jihadist recruitment web based in the small town of Sevran, on the outskirts of Paris, that operated from an informal prayer hall, later known as the “Daesh Mosque,” using an alternative name for the Islamic State.

Among the 24 defendants at the trial, 13 had frequented the mosque.

Standing before the judges, Mr. Roy’s parents, Véronique and Thierry, recounted how their son had converted to jihadist ideology in just a few months.

“It’s the trial of sectarian radicalization,” Ms. Roy said, as she described how her son, after his conversion to Islam in 2012, gave up his studies and his job and broke up with his girlfriend.

In September 2014, Mr. Roy told his parents he had to go to Frankfurt for his work as an Uber driver. A few days later, he was crossing the border from Turkey to Syria.

As they did with the Roy family, judges at the trial turned to relatives to reconstruct the journey of the 19 defendants who are presumed dead.

Among those defendants were the brothers Mohamed and Mehdi Belhoucine, who have been linked to the kosher supermarket attack by Amedy Coulibaly in January 2015.

Mohamed Belhoucine is considered to be the mentor of Mr. Coulibaly. Mehdi Belhoucine was accused of arranging the departure of Mr. Coulibaly’s wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, for Syria. The Belhoucine brothers left France for Syria at the start of January 2015.

The Belhoucine brothers are believed to have died on the battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq in 2016. Their parents have received messages from Islamic State fighters notifying them of their sons’ deaths.

But the truth of those reports, in territories beyond the reach of French investigators, cannot be verified.

Intelligence services also fear that acknowledging the death of jihadists could help some who are still alive cover their tracks.

In August 2015, a leading French jihadist recruiter, Omar Omsen, faked his own death before resurfacing 10 months later in a TV interview.

“As long as we don’t have exact proof of their deaths, we have to try them,” Stéphane Duchemin, the president of the court, told the mother of the Belhoucine brothers.

Even as the so-called ghost trials continue, the French government may be forced to moderate its stance and allow for the repatriation of former fighters. In part, that is because of the breakdown of the negotiations to continue conducting trials in Iraq, but also because of the worsening security situation in Syria, where hundreds of European Islamic State fighters are detained.

“If it is not possible to try them on site anymore, I don’t see any other solution than to repatriate those people to France,” the French justice minister, Nicole Belloubet, told the newspaper Libération on Jan. 10. “We cannot risk that they escape into the wild.”

Still, this week, Ms. Belloubet acknowledged in an interview on French radio that “there is no change in our opinion,” about bringing suspects home for trial.

That is not good enough for some, like Mr. Roy’s parents, who belong to an organization that campaigns for the repatriation.

“Now is time to stop talking and start taking action,” Thierry Roy said.

At the end of this month’s trial, Mohamed Belhoucine was sentenced to life imprisonment. Sentences for other defendants ranged from two to 30 years.

Mr. Roy’s son, who was sentenced to 30 years, will probably never serve that time. But his mother said the trial at least had the merit of putting an end to years of anxiety.

“Now we need peace,” Ms. Roy said. “Because we’ve awakened the dead.”

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