Muslim Scientist Sentenced for Exchanging Messages of Terror

PARIS — A Paris court on Friday sentenced a French-Algerian particle physicist to five years in prison, one of them suspended, on the charge of “criminal association with the intent to prepare terrorist acts,” ruling that the man’s online correspondence in 2009 with a presumed member of Al Qaeda constituted a criminal act.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Said Hicheur, center, whose son Adlène was convicted over e-mail exchanges with a presumed member of Al Qaeda, on Friday in Paris. Another son, Halim, right, called the case “outrageous

The scientist, Adlène Hicheur, 35, did not deny the exchange of messages, in which he suggested targets for terrorist strikes in France, but maintains that he never intended to act on his words. The trial has raised difficult questions about the possible excesses of French antiterrorism law, which in effect treats intent as a criminal act.

A researcher at the Large Hadron Collider project at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland, Dr. Hicheur met his interlocutor on an Internet forum dedicated to radical Islam while on sick leave, nursing a herniated disk at his parents’ home in southeastern France.

Dr. Hicheur has been in prison since his arrest 2 1/2 years ago; that period will be counted as time served, his lawyer said Friday, adding that they would decide in coming days whether to appeal the verdict.

Judicial authorities say French law allows them to intervene while apparent terrorist plots remain in the planning stages. Dr. Hicheur’s supporters, by contrast, contend that the legislation oversteps the bounds of civil rights, that matters of pure intent should not reach the courts, which they call ill suited to plumb the vagaries of the human psyche.

Dr. Hicheur, it has been widely noted, never acted on his words — he purchased no weapons and offered no direct assistance.

“This decision seems to me to constitute a veritable judicial scandal,” said Dr. Hicheur’s lawyer, Patrick Baudouin, after Friday’s verdict. “It’s in light of simple words exchanged that Adlène Hicheur finds himself condemned to this sentence,” Mr. Baudouin said, without the “slightest beginning of a start” to terrorist acts.

Over three decades, hundreds of people have been convicted and jailed on charges of “criminal association,” though Dr. Hicheur’s appears to be the first conviction based solely on Internet activity, Mr. Baudouin said.

Dr. Hicheur was born in Algeria and has been described as an observant Muslim who integrated in French society but was angered by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was employed by the Laboratory for High Energy Physics at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, with an office at CERN, where he was involved in work on antimatter, in an effort to explain why the universe is made of matter and not its opposite. Colleagues viewed him as a talented researcher.

James Gillies, a spokesman for CERN, said in an e-mail that the laboratory did not interfere in the affairs of its member nations, but that “CERN remains committed to its policy of inclusion.”

In 2009, Dr. Hicheur exchanged about three dozen messages, some of them encrypted, with a man French officials have identified as Mustapha Debchi, a representative in Algeria of Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Dr. Hicheur maintains that he never knew the man’s identity, as the messages were exchanged via online pseudonyms, he under the name “Abou Doujana,” the other man under the name “Phenixshadow.”

In a message in June 2009, the man inquired: “Are you disposed to work in an operative unit in France?”

“Yes, of course,” Dr. Hicheur replied, though he repeatedly hedged, never committing to any specific plan, according to Mr. Baudouin.

During a two-day trial in March, Dr. Hicheur acknowledged that while his e-mail correspondence might appear troubling, it was the fruit of intellectual curiosity and not the aspirational writings of a budding jihadi. He was on morphine at the time, and passing through a “turbulent patch,” he told the court, according to news reports.

“I can understand that certain passages might cause worry,” he said, though he never explicitly repudiated their content.

Read the Rest Via:nyt

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