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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

France Holds Tough on Terror

PARIS — In many countries of Europe, former inmates of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been relishing their freedom. In Spain, Denmark and Britain, recently released detainees have railed about their treatment at Guantanamo, winning sympathy from local politicians and newspapers. In Sweden, the government has agreed to help a Guantanamo veteran sue his American captors for damages.

Not so in France, where four prisoners from the U.S. naval base were arrested as soon as they arrived home in July, and haven't been heard from since. Under French law, they could remain locked up for as long as three years while authorities decide whether to put them on trial — a legal limbo that their attorneys charge is not much different than what they faced at Guantanamo.

Armed with some of the strictest anti-terrorism laws and policies in Europe, the French government has aggressively targeted Islamic radicals and other people deemed a potential terrorist threat. While other Western countries debate the proper balance between security and individual rights, France has experienced scant public dissent over tactics that would be controversial, if not illegal, in the United States and some other countries.

French authorities have expelled a dozen Islamic clerics for allegedly promoting hatred or religious extremism, including a Turkish-born imam who officials said denied that Muslims were involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Since the start of the school year, the government has been enforcing a ban on wearing religious garb in school, a policy aimed largely at preventing Muslim girls from wearing veils.

French counterterrorism officials say their pre-emptive approach has paid off. They said tips from informants and close cooperation with other intelligence services led them to thwart planned attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Paris, French tourist sites on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean and other targets.

"There is a reality today: Under the cover of religion there are individuals in our country preaching extremism and calling for violence," Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said at a recent meeting of Islamic leaders in Paris. "It is essential to be opposed to it together and by all means."

France has embraced a law enforcement strategy that relies heavily on pre-emptive arrests, ethnic profiling and an efficient domestic intelligence-gathering network.

French anti-terrorism prosecutors and investigators are among the most powerful in Europe, backed by laws that allow them to interrogate suspects for days without interference from defense attorneys.

The nation pursues such policies at a time when France has become well-known in the world for criticizing the United States for holding suspected terrorists at Guantanamo without normal judicial protections.

Terrorism is "a very new and unprecedented belligerence, a new form of war and we should be flexible in how we fight it," said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a senior French anti-terrorism judge.

Over the past decade, Bruguiere has ordered the arrests of more than 500 people on suspicion of "conspiracy in relation to terrorism," a broad charge that gives him leeway to lock up suspects while he carries out investigations.

Critics assert that most people arrested on orders of anti-terrorism judges in France never face terror-related charges and eventually are freed. Official statistics on French terrorism prosecutions are not readily available, so it is difficult to assess the outcome of such cases.

"There has been a definite erosion of civil liberties in France, and not just with terrorism," said Michel Tubiana, a lawyer and president of the Human Rights League in France. "We're seeing things that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago."

The French government has also stepped up efforts to crack down on radical Islamic clerics. Bruno Le Maire, a senior adviser to the interior minister, said authorities have placed about 40 mosques under close surveillance and move quickly whenever they find a cleric preaching radicalism.

Other countries, including the United States, have long-standing policies that restrict law enforcement agents from infiltrating places of worship. So far, however, France's aggressive approach has not led to widespread criticism.

Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, said many Muslims are just as concerned about preventing terrorist attacks as other French citizens. "Fundamentalism is on the rise," he said.

"This is a real danger. The state should take measures against these types of people that disrupt society, not only when there is a terrorist attack, but before."