Paris Appeals Court Acquits ex-Guantanamo Inmates

Martha Rayner in Associated Press, February 24, 2009

PARIS (AP) -- A Paris appeals court on Tuesday overturned the terrorism convictions of five former detainees at Guantanamo Bay, ruling French police agents were out of line in questioning them at the U.S. prison camp.

France is among the few Western countries to prosecute nationals who have returned home from Guantanamo -- and the ruling marks the latest high-profile foreign disavowal of the secretive center that President Barack Obama's administration wants to shutter for good.

The appeals court ruled that agents from the French counterterrorism agency DST who questioned the five inmates at Guantanamo in 2002 and 2004 had overstepped their roles. Overturning a lower court's conviction, the appeals court said DST could not act as both a spy agency and a judicial police service, the body French law says is authorized to interrogate detainees.

State prosecutors said they would appeal to the highest French court, the Court of Cassation.

The men, who were arrested in Afghanistan in 2001, each spent a total of 2-1/2 to 3 years in custody at Guantanamo and in France, to which they were repatriated in 2004 and 2005.

Legal experts said the ruling could send a message to any future U.S. court that prosecutes Guantanamo inmates by showing how a foreign court feels about the admissibility of evidence taken from interrogations there.

"I hope that American courts are brave enough to demand that the government come forward with the records about the torture and coercion that was conducted by our intelligence agencies," said Martha Rayner, a law professor at Fordham University, by telephone from New York. She said her office represents two Guantanamo inmates.

Judith Sunderland, a Human Rights Watch researcher for Europe and central Asia who specializes in counterterrorism, said the ruling could provide lessons about how intelligence information in such cases can be used in court.

'Here we have the court of appeal taking a clear stance against improperly acquired intelligence information being used in court proceedings,' she said by phone. 'That is clearly a very, very positive step.'

All seven French citizens who were at Guantanamo were sent home in 2004 and 2005. One was immediately released; another was acquitted in trial; the other five were convicted for participating in a terrorist group in Afghanistan.

The Paris criminal court in 2007 convicted the five -- Ridouane Khalid, Brahim Yadel, Khaled ben Mustafa, Nizar Sassi and Mourad Benchellali -- of 'criminal association with a terrorist enterprise,' a broad charge often used in terror cases in France.

They were each sentenced to a year in prison. Because they had served more than that time before the trial, they did not return to prison after the sentencing.

During their 2007 trial, they had acknowledged having spent time in military training camps in Afghanistan but said they had never put their combat skills to use.

The lawyer for two former inmates said his clients were 'relieved.'

'This is a historic decision because it shows that the ends don't justify the means in a democracy,' said William Bourdon, an attorney for Benchellali and Sassi. 'Despite the terrorism threat and the need for effectiveness that it requires, a modern democratic state can't just do whatever it wants.'