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Couple Convicted In Swiss Internet-Terrorism Trial

June 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Switzerland's first Internet-terrorism trial has ended with a federal court in the southern Swiss city of Bellinzona convicting a Muslim man and a woman for running Internet websites supporting terrorism.

The couple was found guilty of running websites to support Al-Qaeda linked groups and publicly incite criminal acts and racial violence.

Moez Garsallaoui and his wife, Malika al-Aroud, had pleaded innocent to the charges, which relate to content that showed how to make bombs and poison gas, and how to prepare terrorist attacks. They were also accused of providing a discussion forum that was used by terrorist groups to exchange information.

"If you shut one site down, it will simply move to another server and be there in no time at all." -- terrorism expert Peter Lehr.

The court sentenced Garsallaoui to six months in prison, plus a further suspended sentence of 18 months. Al-Aroud received a six month suspended prison sentence. The sentences were considerably lighter than those demanded by the prosecution.

Media reports say al-Aroud is the widow of a suicide bomber who helped kill Afghan mujahedin leader Ahmad Shah Mas'ud in 2001. She is a Belgian of Moroccan extraction, and is now married to Garsallaoui, who is Tunisian.


Terrorism expert Peter Lehr, of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence in Scotland, says terrorists have become adept at using the new technology to get their message across, using website operators as "middlemen."

"They are basically acting as go-betweens for people interested in involvement [in terror], connecting them with others who have not only ideas, but also expertise," Lehr says.

During the two-day trial, the prosecution showed a video of extremists beheading an American man -- one of a number of graphic executions which the prosecution says were carried on the websites.

However, when questioned, Garsallaoui denied any knowledge of the video, saying it could have been posted to the site by an anonymous visitor. But he defended his right to show such material, saying it is part of free expression.

Hard To Control

Swiss authorities closed down all the couple's websites in 2005. But analyst Lehr says controlling the abuse of the Internet is a difficult task.

"The problem, however, is how can you shut down these sites," Lehr says. "You know very well that if you shut one site down, it will simply move to another server and be there in no time at all. So for Switzerland it's rather difficult -- it needs concerted action by all the nations of the world to monitor these things. And this of course brings up questions of where state authority will stop."

Lehr points out the controversy surrounding a plan to grant powers to the German police to clandestinely access the hard drives of computer users to check for the presence of criminal material.

"That's the other side of the coin," he says. "If you want security, you have to give up some rights, some individual freedoms."