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French Try Alleged Islam Extremists

September 1, 1998

FLEURY-MEROGIS, France (AP) _ Nearly 140 suspected Islamic militants accused of providing weapons and funds for rebels in Algeria went on trial Tuesday in a prison gym outside Paris, but almost all the defense lawyers walked out in protest.

The lawyers, who contest the conditions of the trial, had sought a postponement. They also asked for the release of 27 of the 138 defendants who have been jailed since their arrests in 1994 and 1995. The others were released on their own recognizance.

Nearly all 138 defense lawyers walked out by early evening, describing the trial as ``shameful″ and ``a masquerade.″

They contend the proceedings are a political ploy for France to show support for Algeria’s military-backed regime, which has been fighting an Islamic insurgency since 1992. The lawyers had indicated they would walk out after the first day.

The defendants are accused of belonging to three separate but overlapping networks that served as support bases for the insurgency.

The defense lawyers maintain that most of the defendants have just a passing connection to the leaders of the networks and should be tried separately.

The trial was being held in a gymnasium at the Fleury-Merogis Prison outside Paris, renovated for the proceedings at a cost of more than $1.7 million. The gym replaces the Palais de Justice in central Paris, where courtrooms are too small to accommodate the trial.

The suspects are accused of sending arms and medicine, recruiting fighters and providing safe havens in France for insurgents and funds for the cause.

Charged with ``criminal association with a terrorist enterprise,″ they face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

The key leaders of the suspected militants sat Monday in a bullet-proof box during questioning.

Mohamed Chalabi, one of the alleged leaders, was asked if he was Algerian.

``No. I’m Muslim,″ he replied. ``The military authorities are Algerian. I’m Muslim.″

Notably absent from the trial was Mohamed Kerrouch, described as the ideologue and top leader. He was extradited in December from Britain but has refused to attend the trial.

Kerrouch is accused of organizing support networks and provisions for the Islamic Salvation Army, the military wing of the now-banned Algerian political party the Islamic Salvation Front. He allegedly continued the same work for the Armed Islamic Group, the radical insurgency movement accused of numerous massacres.

Another leading suspect, Mourad Tacine, is accused of heading a third group that allegedly provided false documents and lodging for insurgents who took refuge in France.

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