French Have No Case Against Guantanamo Prisoners

PARIS – Four French prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba who were transferred to France earlier this week are likely to be released because the police have no case against them.

In this they will follow their British, Danish and Spanish counterparts who were all freed without charge after release from Guantanamo Bay earlier this year.

After spending more than 30 months in U.S. detention, Mourad Benchellali, Nizar Sassi, Imad Kanouni and Brahim Yadel are currently held in a French secret service prison.

The four aged between 23 and 33 years were captured by the U.S. military during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Three other French nationals are still detained at Guantanamo. A German and four other British nationals are also among the Europeans still held there.

The French judiciary has until Saturday afternoon either to charge the four men or free them. But Paul-Albert Iweins, a lawyer defending all four says that "if the U.S. government released them, it was because it did not have the smallest evidence against them. Now, French prosecutors may question them, but it must free them because there are no charges at all against them."

The U.S. government said in a letter to French authorities Aug. 25 last year that the seven French prisoners at Guantanamo had been considered "enemy combatants captured." The letter also confirmed that the U.S. government had never brought charges against them.

"French authorities can hardly accuse the four detainees from Guantanamo of anything at all after the U.S. government itself said it holds no charges against them," Patrick Baudouin, legal counselor for the International Federation of Human Rights told IPS. In releasing the four the U.S. government "has admitted the total lack of legal foundations of their detention in Guantanamo."

Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière who is in charge of the inquiry can accuse some of the men of carrying false passports at the time of their detention. But Bruguière, who had opened an inquiry against the seven French Guantanamo prisoners for participating in a "terrorist enterprise," must now come to terms with the U.S. failure to provide evidence against the detainees.

Of the four men who returned to France Tuesday, only Mourad Benchellali may face indictment on a separate charge. Benchellali is the son of Chellali Benchellali, a Muslim cleric imprisoned earlier this year on charges of promoting terrorism during his preaching in the mosque of Venissieux, near Lyon in the south of the country.

French authorities accuse the whole Benchellali family of participating in terrorist activities. Both Mourad’s parents and his brother Menad have been in prison since January 2004.

Menad has been accused of participating in the war in Chechnya, and his father Chellali and mother Hafsa of financially supporting him against Russian troops.

According to French intelligence sources the four detainees now released are at most "lowest rank members of Islamic militant groups." The sources claimed that the four men confessed during the first days of detention in France to participating in training and indoctrination camps in Afghanistan.

"But we knew that already," an official source told IPS. "They are young people without any importance at all."

The sources also said that the four men have condemned the conditions of detention they endured at Guantanamo.

William Bordon, another lawyer defending the detainees told IPS that the police dossier on the four men is almost empty. Bordon said the French government never demanded extradition of the detainees from Guantanamo due to lack of evidence against them.

The only basis for any eventual prosecution against the four detainees would be their own deposition before a French judge. "But such depositions could be barely enough for initiating a real inquiry," Bordon said. "In no case should French justice should imprison them beyond Saturday. If it does, I would say that this imprisonment is the price France accepted to pay to the U.S. government for the release of the four men from Guantanamo."

The U.S. authorities have released some 130 prisoners from Guantanamo out of a total of about 600. Only four of them have been officially indicted for terrorism.

The U.S. Government first denied the Guantanamo prisoners the status of prisoners of war in order to block their access to legal counsel. It only described them as "enemy combatants." But last month the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners had the right to challenge the charges before national tribunals.