PARIS - Four French citizens held without trial for more than two years at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, arrived in France yesterday and were detained by French authorities under the country's anti-terrorism laws.
The four men, who were captured in the American-led war in Afghanistan on suspicion of fighting for the Taliban, were released after what President Jacques Chirac called "long and intense negotiations" with the Bush administration.
Speaking to journalists in a visit to Madagascar, Chirac also thanked "all those who contributed to their return," particularly the International Committee of the Red Cross, adding that the four men "of course" would be dealt with under France's judicial system.
Under French law, the four Frenchmen can be kept under investigation for 96 hours on suspicion of "criminal association with a terrorist enterprise."
The continued detention of hundreds of foreign suspects arrested in Afghanistan and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay without charge has sparked a huge outcry in France and around the world.
An editorial in the French newspaper Le Monde that appeared on the newsstands yesterday afternoon said, "If the prisoners are cleared of all charges, this will be a hard new blow for the credibility of the 'war against terrorism' waged by President Bush regardless of either national or international law or morality."
France is still pressuring the United States to repatriate three other Frenchmen still at Guantanamo.
The Bush administration has taken the position that they are "enemy combatants" with no right to contest their detention in American civilian courts, but last month the Supreme Court rejected that argument, affirming their right to challenge their detention in court.
Even before the ruling, the administration began to release some suspects. Before yesterday, 135 prisoners had been repatriated and released, while 12 others who were repatriated are still in detention in their home countries, according to the Pentagon. Almost 600 prisoners are still in Guantanamo.
The four Frenchmen - Mourad Benchellali, Brahim Yadel, Imad Kanouni and Nizar Sassi - were flown to a military base in Normandy in a chartered French military plane and turned over for questioning to France's counterintelligence agency, the Directorate for Territorial Surveillance. They will also appear before France's most prominent anti-terrorism investigating magistrate, Jean-Louis Bruguiere.
Their lawyers and families have yet to be given access to them.
Benchellali, 24, who was arrested by U.S. troops in Afghanistan in February 2002, is the brother of Menad Benchellali, who is under arrest on suspicion of planning to bomb Russian targets, including the Russian Embassy in Paris, in 2002.
Their father, Chellali Benchellali, a Muslim cleric from the Lyon suburb of Venissieux, is also under arrest in connection with the plot to avenge Russia's crackdown in the Muslim province of Chechnya.
Yadel was wanted in France in an investigation into a training camp by Islamic militants set up in the late 1990s in the Fontainebleau forest near Paris.