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French Iraq Insurgents Get Up to 7 Years in Prison

(Bloomberg) -- A Paris court sentenced members of a recruitment ring that sent French Muslims to fight in the Iraqi insurgency to up to seven years in prison.

Seven men were on trial for "association with wrongdoers with the intention of committing a terrorist act." Prosecutors said during the trial that a total of 10 men from Paris's heavily immigrant-populated 19th arrondissement made it to Iraq, where three died. The three Paris judges convicted and sentenced them today after hearing evidence in March.

Farid Benyettou, 27, a self-taught preacher at various Paris mosques, was sentenced to six years. At the trial, state prosecutor Jean-Julien Xavier-Rolai portrayed him as the group's "spiritual guide" and asked for him to serve eight years.

Boubakeur el-Hakim, 24, whom prosecutors accused of running a way station in Damascus for young French Muslims en route to fight U.S. forces in Iraq, was sentenced to seven years. Xavier- Rolai had sought eight years. Said Abdelleh, a 39-year-old Moroccan, also got seven years and will be expelled from France after completing his sentence.

"From the beginning of this investigation, it emerged that Farid Benyettou, as the ideologue, and Boubekeur el-Hakim, as the organizer, played an important role in the departure of young Frenchmen from the 19th arrondissement for jihad in Iraq," the court said in its ruling.

The three were in pre-trial detention. They made no comments after hearing the verdicts and were handcuffed and taken away. Each has already spent three years in jail, which will be counted as part of their sentences. Benyettou and el- Hakim will be eligible for parole after serving two-thirds of their terms.

Via Damascus

French recruits made their way by air to Damascus, usually telling their families they were going to study Arabic, according to the printed version of the court's ruling. They were met by middlemen and taken across the border, generally paying about $400 to Syrian smugglers. Two died in the U.S. bombardment of Fallujah in 2004, and another died carrying out a suicide bomb attack in October 2004. One of the dead was el- Hakim's brother, Redouane.

Another alleged member of Benyettou's ring, Peter Cherif, is in jail awaiting trial after being arrested in Iraq in 2004 and extradited to France earlier this year.

The court said the French recruits joined Abu Musab al- Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq or an allied group, Army of Mohammed. Al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. bombing raid in 2006.

`Jihadist' Views

Benyettou declined the services of a lawyer at the trial. Admitting to "jihadist" views, he denied encouraging others to travel to Iraq. He'd been thrown out of a series of Paris mosques because of his violent views and often gave religious classes at home, prosecutors said.

Eric Plouvier, a lawyer who represented other defendants, said in his summing-up in March that the defendants were "a band of friends who had empathy for the suffering of people in Iraq" and that the prosecution failed to prove they had carried out any "reprehensible acts" in Iraq. He said U.S. forces were the ones terrorizing Iraqi civilians.

Abdelleh is the most experienced member of the group, having made failed attempts to reach Chechnya and Afghanistan in 2001. The court ruling listed seven false names he'd used over the years.

Nacer Eddine Mettai was sentenced to four years, as requested by the prosecution. The 37-year-old Algerian admitted making false passports for 300 euros ($464) each though he said he had no idea what they were to be used for. He had already been sentenced to six years in jail in a separate 2006 trial. He'll be expelled from France upon release.

Suspended Sentences

Three more defendants who were freed from custody before the trial won't go to prison because of time spent in pre-trial detention, and because 18 months of their sentences are suspended.

Cherif Kouachi, 26, and Thamar Bouchnak, 25, were arrested in Paris in January 2005 as they prepared to fly to Damascus. They were sentenced to three years, as requested by Xavier- Rolai.

Kouachi said on the stand that he was inspired by detainee abuse by U.S. troops at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, though he was relieved he was stopped. The court said Kouachi had wanted to attack Jewish targets in France, but Benyettou had told him that France wasn't a "land of jihad" but Iraq was.

Kouachi, who alternated between periods of smoking marijuana and attending Benyettou's classes, said he's now working in a supermarket and his main interest is rap music.

Fallujah

Mohamed el-Ayouni, 25, who lost an arm and an eye during the 2004 battle of Fallujah, was sentenced to three years. He made it back to Syria in May 2006. There, he was arrested and sent to France, where he now lives with his parents, and is awaiting an artificial limb. The prosecutor had asked for four years.

Al-Ayouni's name was on a list of 258 foreign insurgents discovered in an al-Qaeda safe house in Iraq in 2005, the ruling said. The list included his fake name, as well as his family's phone number in France. The families of insurgents who died all received calls from Iraq or Syria informing them of their sons' fates.

By Gregory Viscusi


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