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French Convict 107 Islamic Backers

January 22, 1999

FLEURY-MEROGIS, France (AP) _ In the finale to France’s largest trial, a court convened Friday in a prison gymnasium and convicted 107 people on charges of supporting Islamic insurgents in Algeria.

The court acquitted 31 of the 138 defendants, all arrested in police sweeps from 1994-95 and charged with engaging in ``a terrorist enterprise.″

Prosecutors said the defendants were involved in three overlapping networks that provided support to the Islamic insurgency in Algeria, where violence has left more than 75,000 people dead since 1992.

The 107 defendants were convicted of sending arms, money and medical supplies to fighters or providing documents and refuge for Muslim militants brought to France.

Presiding Judge Bruno Steinmann called each of the defendants separately to the front of the gym and for nearly an hour read out the verdicts.

Controversy has plagued the two-month trial, which began Sept. 1. The majority of the 70 defense lawyers, most of whom boycotted the proceedings, were absent again on Friday. Numerous defendants also refused to attend their trial.

The lawyers derided ``mass justice″ and the ``undignified″ setting in Fleury Merogis prison, nearly an hour’s drive south of Paris.

Defense lawyers contended that most of the defendants, many of them women, had only a passing connection to the three network leaders and said separate trials should have been held.

Mohamed Chalabi, Mourad Tacine and Mohamed Kerrouche, were found guilty of heading three separate support networks. They were sentenced to eight-year prison terms.

The three men were among 24 defendants kept in detention since their arrests nearly five years ago. The remaining defendants had been free on their own recognizance.

The 21 other jailed defendants were sentenced to prison terms ranging from four to six years. The remaining sentences ranged from one month to two years.

A total of 51 people were acquitted of the main charge of relations with a terrorist enterprise, but 20 of them were given mostly minor sentences on other charges.

But even an innocent verdict offered little satisfaction for some.

``Four years of hell for an acquittal,″ murmured one woman defendant.

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