PARIS (Reuters) – Six French men and one Algerian went on trial in Paris on Wednesday accused of involvement in a network smuggling Islamist fighters to Iraq.
The seven, arrested in 2005, risk prison sentences of up to 10 years for “criminal association in a terrorist enterprise” if found guilty in a trial expected to end by the end of next week.
Prosecutors accuse the main suspect, 26-year-old preacher Farid Benyettou, of recruiting “jihadists” from worshippers at a mosque in northern Paris and organizing their transfer to Iraq via radical establishments in Syria and Egypt.
One of the other accused, Mohamed el Ayouni, who was arrested in Syria, lost an arm and an eye in fighting in November 2004.
According to French intelligence reports read out at the trial, three other French men recruited through the network were killed in Iraq, one in the course of a suicide bombing and two others fighting American troops.
The case is the latest in a series involving networks in France smuggling Islamist fighters to the war in Iraq, which was strongly opposed by the French government and which is deeply unpopular among the general population.
“It’s a paradoxical case,” Eric Plouvier, one of the men’s lawyers told Reuters. “On the one hand, there are French political declarations hostile to the American intervention in Iraq and, on the other, these young French people who have come out of sympathy to Muslims under attack.”
Court documents showed that police believed the group, based in the Buttes-Chaumont area in northern Paris, was set up in 2003 or 2004 and “indoctrinated” groups of young Muslims at a mosque and nearby hostel.
The documents said Farid Benyettou spoke to the group of “dying as a martyr to deserve paradise”.
After brief paramilitary training, they were sent to Koranic schools in Syria that specialized in smuggling foreign fighters across the border to Iraq.