Legal teams protest as terrorism trial opens


Twenty-seven prisoners huddled together inside two bulletproof glass cages, handcuffed and flanked by gendarmes. The disembodied voices came over the loudspeakers in the sweltering courtroom.

"Nationality?" Judge Bruno Steinmann asked Mr Mohamed Chalabi.

"Muslim," came the defiant answer from deep inside one of the cages.

"But you are of Algerian nationality?" the judge insisted.

"I have nothing to do with the military junta," Mr Chalabi said. "They are Algerian. I am a Muslim."

"That's a point of view," the judge shrugged.

Mr Chalabi and his three brothers have given their name to the extraordinary, two-month mass trial of 138 people which opened in a converted gymnasium 35km south of Paris yesterday. Now 43 years old, he had a criminal record for drug dealing and robbery before joining the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) during a stay in Algeria in 1991.

Many of the 128 lawyers involved in the trial have denounced it as a charade. "Justice should be pursued in an individual, personalised manner," the human rights lawyer, Mr Jean-Jacques de Felice, said before asking the judge to postpone the trial and free the 27 incarcerated defendants.

Mr Chalabi's counsel, Ms Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, called it a "political trial" and denounced the "complicity" between French and Algerian authorities.

"If you read the charges carefully, they're mainly accused of being Muslims!" another lawyer, Mr Dominique Tricaud, said.

To protest at the conditions of the trial, 68 lawyers staged a walkout with most of the 111 unimprisoned defendants late yesterday. Judge Steinmann nonetheless said the trial would resume today.

Many have objected to the trial being held across the street from a prison, and the French press refer to it as "a judiciary Titanic" - a copy of the 74-volume file amounts to more than 30,000 pages and costs 150,000 francs (about £17,900).

All 138 defendants are charged with "association of wrong-doers in contact with a terrorist undertaking", a catch-all crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison, that covers everything from posting a letter or making a telephone call to active involvement in extremist groups.

Many of them were living illegally in France, and a minority are charged with group possession of an arsenal of assault rifles, submachine guns, cartridges, bullets, explosives and detonators.

The accused were arrested in two big round-ups in November 1994 and June 1995, the month before the first in a series of nine bombings in which 14 people were killed in France.

In France suspects are de facto considered guilty until proven innocent. The investigating magistrate, Judge Jean-Louis Brugiere, has lumped in relatives, neighbours and even housewives with small children, with dangerous criminals.

Of the 176 people placed under formal investigation by Judge Brugiere, one committed suicide in prison and 34 were eventually released without charge, many after up to eight months in prison.

The Chalabi trial has drawn unprecedented criticism of the "Brugiere method" which consists of casting a wide net, holding suspects indefinitely under the "association of wrong-doers" law, then sorting them out at the trial.

At least three different groups are on trial at Fleury-Merogis. Mohamed Chalabi was allegedly the emir of a Koranic school. Weapons, 70,000 francs (£8,300) in cash and instructions for making explosives were seized at its headquarters outside Paris.

The second group, led by Mohamed Tacine, allegedly provided lodging and false identity papers for Algerian rebels on the run. The third was led by Mohamed Kerrouche, who along with three other defendants refused to leave his cell yesterday.