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France/U.S.: Criticism Tempered On Decision To Seek Death Penalty For Moussaoui

France has criticized a decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to seek the death penalty in the upcoming trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan origin suspected of being the missing "20th hijacker" in the terrorist bombings in New York and Washington on 11 September. But the French government's reaction was notably tempered.

Paris, 1 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said on 28 March that France "regretted" the U.S. Department of Justice's decision -- announced the same day -- to seek the death penalty in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui.

Earlier, Vedrine asked U.S. authorities not to seek the death penalty against Moussaoui. France ended capital punishment 21 years ago, and as a member of the Council of Europe is committed to its abolishment everywhere. But neither before nor after the Justice Department's decision did Vedrine or any other senior French official condemn or even strongly criticize the United States.

Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan origin, was arrested in Minnesota three weeks before the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. On 1 September, French police told their U.S. counterparts that Moussaoui had connections with the Al-Qaeda terrorist network led by Osama bin laden. Reports in the French press say the French police have an extensive file on Moussaoui, whom they have been investigating as a possible terrorist since 1999. A U.S. federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia -- near Washington, D.C. -- has charged Moussaoui with six counts of conspiring with bin Laden and the 19 hijackers of the four planes in the attacks on New York's World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon outside Washington. Several of these counts could carry the death penalty.

On 26 March, French Justice Minister Marylise Lebranchu said she will not refuse to hand over to U.S. authorities documents they requested, but that she will try to prevent their being used in support of the call for the death penalty. She said that each document will be treated "case by case," and that none has yet been turned over to Washington.

Lebranchu's position failed to convince international and French human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the French League for Human Rights. These organizations say that the United States could use the French documents to convince the jurors in the Virginia trial to rule in favor of the death penalty for Moussaoui.

RFE/RL spoke with Michel Tublana, president of the League of Human Rights: "Well, we believe that after the [U.S. Justice Department's] call for the death penalty, it is impossible for the French government to continue to cooperate in the Moussaoui affair -- I'm speaking only of that [matter] -- with the American authorities. Public law in France, France's commitments abroad -- notably its European [that is, EU] commitments -- prohibit [such cooperation] once the death penalty is involved."

Tublana firmly rejected Justice Minister Lebranchu's argument that the French documents can be divided into those that might be used to argue in favor of the death penalty and those that cannot. "I think that's total hypocrisy!" he said. "I think that one can't cut these documents into various segments, and that the French government cannot predict what use the [U.S.] prosecutor will make of them once he has them in hand. It constitutes a kind of collaboration [with the Americans] and a violation of the principles to which French public officials [are sworn to] adhere." The French Union of Magistrates, known for its leftist leanings, also bluntly criticized Socialist Minister Lebranchu. Gilles Sainati, the union's deputy secretary-general, called the government's behavior "shocking and incoherent." He said the government cannot continue to be so "evasive" and called on Lebranchu to take "a clear position."

Moussaoui's French lawyer, Francois Roux, said he also regrets the U.S. Justice Department's decision. But he added: "We are only at the beginning of the legal process. The [U.S.] prosecutor must convince the jury of the guilt of Zacarias Moussaoui, who is still presumed innocent."

Moussaoui's mother, Aicha, was in Roux's office when the news of the Justice Department's decision was announced. She later told the daily "Le Monde" that she "expected this." She would not allow her son to be the "scapegoat" of the terrorist attacks, Aicha Moussaoui said. "The entire world should remember that on 11 September he had been in prison for nearly a month."

But clearly the most important French reaction this week was that of the government, whose tempered criticism indicated a desire not to worsen already strained Franco-American relations. It also suggested that French authorities who have had full access to the documents the United States has requested have drawn their own conclusions about Moussaoui's involvement in the planning for the 11 September attacks.