Published January 13, 2015
Four Algerians accused of plotting to bomb a French Christmas market were convicted Monday of conspiring to murder and sentenced to prison terms of between 10 and 12 years.
The four were also convicted of conspiring to plant a bomb and of weapons violations, capping a trial that opened under intense scrutiny last year but failed to establish solid links to Al Qaeda.
Prosecutors claimed the defendants were part of a network of predominantly North African extremists called the Nonaligned Mujahideen, with ties to Al Qaeda. But the government dropped charges of belonging to a terrorist organization in January to speed the trial.
Salim Boukari received the highest sentence, 12 years, followed by Fouhad Sabour, 11 years. Both had denied intent to kill, insisting the group had planned to target an empty synagogue in Strasbourg, France.
Alleged co-organizer Aeroubi Beandalis -- the only one to admit to charges that the cell intended to bomb holiday revelers outside the Strasbourg Cathedral on New Year's Eve 2000 -- received 10 years.
Lamine Maroni, who remained silent throughout the trial, was sentenced to 11 years.
Prosecutors had demanded 12 years for Boukari, 11 years for Sabour and 10 years for Maroni and Beandalis. They did not explain why they sought less than the maximum sentence of 15 years for all defendants.
A fifth suspect was dropped from the trial in August due to lack of evidence.
The trial opened April 16 amid extremely tight security and hopes that the suspects' testimony would reveal the inner workings of Al Qaeda's network in Europe.
Yet while three of the men admitted training in Afghan camps from 1999 to 2000 and detailed to authorities how they were recruited by other extremists while living in Europe, their statements provided no substantially new information.
Prosecutors based their case largely on a homemade videotape of the brightly lit Christmas market and Strasbourg cathedral made by Boukari and Sabour weeks before the attack allegedly was to take place.
On the tape, Boukari's voice can be heard saying: "These are the enemies of God."
Prosecutors also cited the discovery of several pressure cookers and about 66 pounds of chemicals that could be used to make explosives, as well as a notebook full of jottings about how to mix homemade bombs, seized at one of the two Frankfurt apartments used by the group after their arrest on Christmas Day 2000.
Mohammed Bensakhria, the alleged leader of the Frankfurt-based group -- known as the Meliani cell -- is believed to have fled Germany but was arrested in Spain in June 2001 and extradited to France.
He is awaiting trial for plotting attacks including the foiled Christmas market bombing. Bensakhria's alias is Meliani.
German prosecutors have never elaborated on their reasons for dropping the charge of belonging to a terrorist organization, which carries a 10-year sentence.
However, they would have had to prove that the terror cell formed in Germany -- not abroad -- under laws in force before tougher German anti-terror legislation introduced since the Sept. 11 attacks.