Rachid Ramda: An Unsurprising But Disconcerting Verdict
By Pascal Tourion, translated by Eleanor, Algeria-Watch, 10th November 2009
On the 13th of October at 5.30 pm, at the end of a month of debate, the Special Court of Assizes in Paris judging on the appeal of M. Rachid Ramda found him guilty of “complicity in murder and attempted murder relating to terrorism by having given the orders and provided the means” for the bombings of Saint-Michel, Maison-Blanche and Musee d’Orsay in 1995 and sentenced him to life imprisonment with a concurrent sentence of 22 years without remission.
This was in accordance with the demands in the closing speech of the prosecution. The counsels for the civil parties, who had asked the nine professional judges of this special court to accede to these demands, were satisfied. Even if M. Ramda takes his case to the final court of appeal and then applies to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), as the Advocate General, Mme. Anne Obez-Vosgien, believed she had to declare at the very start of the trial, he will obtain only one financial compensation for non-compliance with the European Convention for Human Rights (the presumption of innocence, the principle of non bis in idem, a reasonable deadline for judgment and access of the defendant and his counsel to case files). But who cares?
Fourteen years after the events, the file on the bombings is then closed for good and it matters little that the justice system did not try to establish who were actually behind them and why. Just as with the trials on contaminated blood and growth hormones, French officials and other high functionaries, affected by irreversible amnesia, are perhaps politically responsible for complicity with the Algerians who were behind these crimes but are not judicially guilty. And as for the Algerian generals and activists who were directly implicated, several are already dead or are reputedly so, while the others are protected by Franco- Algerian ‘reasons of state’.
As for the media, they immediately announced the verdict but without further commentary. Apart from that of France-Soir there were actually no legal correspondents in the courthouse that day or on any of the preceding days – thanks to L’Erika and Clearstream trials.
However, for the observer who attended this tenth and last trial on the bombings of 1995, who listened to the testimonies – as much those sought by the counsels for the civil parties as by those of the defence – and with even the slightest bit of interest in the statements of each – it is a feeling of astonishment that prevails. Indeed, while several of these testimonies (like that of the journalist Nicole Chevillard (1)) highlighted the very serious gaps in the prosecution’s evidence – of which the magistrates of the special court of assizes showed themselves by their questions to be aware – they nevertheless followed the content of the closing speech of the Advocate General, Mme Obez-Vosgien, who brushed aside all the arguments of the defence and was content to laboriously repeat the fragmentary pieces that constituted the prosecution’s case.
The Bombing Campaign and the Involvement of the GIA
In fact, her closing speech – which was confused and unstructured to the point where it was difficult to tell whether she was following a chronological or thematic outline – raised more doubts than certainties as to the guilt of M. Ramda. In this way, the Advocate General tried to reconstruct the events before trying to make the link with the accused, whom she considered to be like an ’emir’, which is to say a high-up commander of the GIA in an effort to prove that he was indeed the financier of the bombings and the head of all the terrorist groups that had formed in France.
The period chosen by Mme. Obez-Vosgien runs from 1992 to 1996. During this time, she explained, 118 people (of whom 43 were French) were killed both in Algeria and France in bombings that were targeted against either one or more individuals (a curious accounting which ignores the tens of thousands of deaths during this period in Algeria, victims of state terrorism or of the groups who claimed to be the representatives of Islam). The Advocate General therefore cited: the bombing of Algiers airport on the 26th of July 1992; the hijacking of the Algiers Airbus on the 26th of December 1994; the assassination of Imam Sahraoui in Paris on the 11th of July 1995; the bombing of RER (Reseau express regional – rapid-transit train rail system in the Paris region)Saint-Michel on the 25th July 1995; the bombings of Avenue de Friedland on the 17th of August 1995, of the TGV Lyon – Paris on the 26th of August 1995 and of Villeurbanne on the 7th of September 1995; the bombing of the Metro station Maison-Blanche on the 6th of October 1995, the bombing of the RER Orsay on the 17th of October 1995 and the bombing of the RER Port-Royal on the 3rd of December 1996. Mme. Obez-Vosgien thereafter gave details of the bombings of RER Saint-Michel and Musee d’Orsay, specifying that the explosives used in Paris and Lyon had the same detonators and content.
Then, after having asserted that there was no point in tackling the political situation in Algeria and in Afghanistan – an allusion to the role played by some Algerian Islamists in fighting against the Russians in Afghanistan in the nineteen eighties before returning to join the GIA – the Advocate General proceeded to give an outline which was as rapid as it was rough of the Algerian State during the nineteen nineties: the FLN was in power but under the secret control of the military; the FIS won the municipal elections in 1990 then the first round of the elections for the legislature in December 1991. The second round of the elections was cancelled and the FIS was dissolved in January 1992. The Islamic party then formed its military arm, the AIS (while it was actually formed in June of 1994). The GIA only formed on the return of the “Afghans” (in fact it was at the end of 1992). This armed movement went on, she said, to create networks of support throughout the whole of Europe under the command of Djamel Zitouni (she does not specify that the latter became head of the GIA only in October 1994). The GIA created its own newspaper: Al-Ansar. Mme. Obez-Vosgien concluded by affirming that many witnesses believed that the GIA had been manipulated and become the tool of the DRS; but that, even if that were true, did not change at all the responsibility of those who had taken part. “We are not here to rewrite history, but to debate the criminal responsibility of Rachid Ramda in complicity in murder and attempted murder in relation to terrorism,” she affirmed.
At this stage of the Advocate General’s account, a first question arises concerning the guilt of M. Ramda. In effect, the latter was charged with possible complicity in three bombings that occurred in Paris in 1995, while the period of reference of Mme. Obez-Vosgien covers several years, which infers de facto a worsening of the charges against him. And yet the Advocate General could not have misunderstood the statements of Mme. Laurence Le Vert, an antiterrorist investigating judge, who, in dismissing the case regarding the 17th of September 2001 bombing of the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, pronounced: “Participation, either judicially or possibly established, in the arrangement which had the aim of preparing the campaign of terrorist attacks on French territory, is not sufficient to prove participation in any of the specific bombings, whether it be as perpetrator or accomplice. In the same way, if Boualem Bensaid and Rachid Ramda had been investigated for their participation in the bombings of “Saint-Michel”, “Maison-Blanche” and “d’Orsay”, and if Smain Ait Ali Belkacem had also been for this last matter, their involvement in some Paris bombings does not allow for the deduction that they were involved in the whole group of bombings in the capital.” Therefore, not only are the other Paris bombings excluded, but also those which touched other parts of the country, a fact which Mme. Obez-Vosgien seems to have ignored when she intimated that, since the explosives used were the same for the bombings of Paris and for those of Lyon, M. Ramda would have been equally involved in the latter.
In addition, the prosecution had never implicated M. Ramda in certain events, quoted by the Advocate General, that took place in Algeria such as the bombing of Algiers Airport in 1992 (the conviction for which of Abdelkader Benouis, alias Abu Fares, was confirmed during the hearings, the latter having been clearly identified as such by M. Jean-Francois Clair, the number 3 of the DST, who even remembers the date of his birth), the hijacking of the Algiers Airbus on 26th December 1994, or the assassination of French nationals on Algerian territory, of which that of the monks of Tibherine (about which the anti-terrorist investigating judge, Marc Trevidic, received, on the 25th of June 2009, the testimony of General Francois Buchwalter that the monks were machine-gunned by the Algerian army). Finally, the reference to the bombing of the RER Port-Royal on the 3rd of December 1996 is all the more surprising considering that M. Ramda had been incarcerated since November 1995.
In reality, all of these allusions had nothing at all to do with the charges against M. Ramda, a fact of which Mme. Obez-Vosgien could not have been unaware. But by evoking them explicitly, she implicitly identified the possible personal responsibility of M. Ramda in the crimes of which he was accused as that of the ‘nebulous terrorist’ of the GIA, to which all the criminal acts have been attributed, completely overlooking those who were behind the crimes – the Algerian generals according to a number of testimonies which tally, testimonies which have been tossed aside both by the prosecution and the special court of assizes.
Consequently, the second question that arises concerns the ability of the Advocate General to handle a chronology (besides her wish to do so) that reinforces her account of the Algerian combatants returning from Afghanistan, a return she seems to place in 1992. Yet the Afghan-Russian war ended in December 1989, after ten years of fierce fighting and a number of those “Afghans” had already returned to Algeria to take part in the rise of the FSI then its fall, which was followed by the arrest and imprisonment of the political leaders of the party, as well as the extra-judicial execution of its members and sympathisers by the DRS and other military personnel. From these events resulted a civil war during which the responsibility for the killings and other bombings did not rest solely, far from it, with the armed groups representing Islam, as has been precisely illustrated by several human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which blamed the abuses of the security forces.
Moreover, this is what was explicitly admitted in the “Charter for peace and national reconciliation”, which was promulgated by the Algerian government on the 27th of February 2006: even if at first it tried to minimise the scale of the human rights violations perpetrated by the army and the DRS, in particular the forced disappearances, this charter was offering the families of the disappeared financial compensation, while at the same time prohibiting them from making complaints “against elements of the security and defence forces of the Republic in their entirety” who were implicated in these acts (article 45), under pain of prosecution (article 46).
In addition to the chronology, Mme Obez-Vosgien showed scant respect also for the facts. She declared that the newspaper Al-Ansar was a “creation of the GIA whose first edition was in July 1993” whereas the first number of the paper appeared in London in the autumn of 1992 and it was only in its eleventh issue on the 23rd of September 1993 that the first official communiqué from the GIA appeared (2) which announced the appointment of a new ‘national emir’ of the armed group, Jafar Al-Afghani (second emir, active from September 1993 until February 1994) which was thirteen months prior to the arrival of Djamel Zatouni (fifth emir, active from October 1994 until July 1996) and seven months after the arrival of M.Ramda in London. The name of the latter never appeared in the columns of Al-Ansar yet it was prolific in its mentions of the ‘national emirs’ at that period of time, which makes it highly unlikely that Ramda, a mere militant Islamist arriving in London in February 1993 was an important ’emir’ of the GIA in Europe, as was claimed by Mme. Obez-Vosgien in her final speech.
Moreover, how could she have been in a position to give a precise date, even an erroneous one, of the first issue of the periodical Al-Ansar when she cites in support of her arguments only issues 67 (20th October 1994), 83 (9th February 1995), 96(12th May 1995) and 118 (10th December 1995, a date on which M. Ramda was already incarcerated) when members of the French secret services when brought to testify about the contents of these sole issues admitted that it had been impossible for them to access these papers in full for analysis and comparison?
A final piece of information does not seem to have been brought to the attention of the Advocate General – that there were six other publications that relayed communiqués from the GIA to London, namely: Al-Jamaa, Al-Taifat, Al-Mansura, Al-Rada, Al-Shahada, Al-Jihad and Al-Fajr. Therefore a closer of study of the arguments used by Mme. Obez-Vosgien, that allowed her to link M. Ramda to the three bombings of 1995 that he has been accused of, is called for.
The ‘Proof’ of the Advocate General
The Advocate General summed up the events which led to the questioning of M. Rachid Ramda in London on the 4th of November 1995, in this way: following the death of Khaled Kelkal who was killed by the police on the 29th of September 1995 at the aforesaid Maison-Blanche in the outskirts of Lyon, enquiries led to telephone calls involving M. Boulaem Bensaid (alias Mehdi or Abderrahmane Benabas) and M. Smain Ait Ali Belkacem who talked about a certain ‘Ellyes’, of certain money transfers from London and of Western Union. British intelligence officers then declared that ‘Ellyes’ was Rachid Ramda and, at the request of the French intelligence service, placed him under surveillance. Following the arrests of M. Bensaid and M. Belkacem, the police found, in the residence of the former, accounts involving sums of money from abroad and the names Abu Fares and Ellyes, as well as a notebook containing the telephone numbers of ‘Tarek’ (alias of a certain Ali Touchent) and of Ellyes. M. Bensaid stated that he accounted for his actions to Ellyes who provided the necessary money and whom he could reach at a telephone number ending in 405.Another man questioned in France, M. Safe Bourada, recognised Ellyes in a photograph album as being Rachid Ramda.
M. Ramda was then arrested in London on the 4th of November, in possession of the keys to a flat located at 30 Braybrooke Street, where a quantity of GIA material was found, of which three documents bore the fingerprints of the accused: a typed letter that mentioned the GIA, a slip giving the location of a PO Box and two pages of the newspaper Al-Ansar of 16th October 1995. In addition, following a tail, it would be proved that M. Ramda, under the name of Philippe Hervier, sent £5000 to ‘Abderrahmane Benabas’ (M. Bensaid) via Western Union on the same day, 16th October.
Finally, Mme Obez-Vosgien closed her ‘proof’ as to the guilt of M. Ramda as the giver of orders and the financier of the bombings by affirming that he was an ‘Afghan’ for he went to the Pakistani-Afghani border area from 1990 and 1993; that he was lying when he said he was there for humanitarian reasons to give aid to Afghani refugees; that he spent several weeks in Nigeria in 1992 without explaining his activities; and that he entered the United Kingdom in February 1993 with a false passport in the name of Elias Serbis.
Consequently, the guilt of M. Ramda was definitively established for the Advocate General, who shouted to the accused thus: “It is up to me, in the name of the Republic of France, to do all in my power to ensure you never start again.” However, a new question immediately springs to mind: that of the existence of any proof whatsoever as to the actual guilt of M. Ramda. For Mme. Obez-Vosgien has fulfilled the requirements she has imposed upon herself, to protect the interests of the society she represents, so effectively that she has merely enumerated the charges weighed against the accused, without ever taking into account the significant facts brought by the witnesses throughout the whole month of hearings.
A Surprisingly Casual Approach To the Establishment of the Facts
Now, on the one hand, the facts that led to the arrest and charging of M. Ramda are far less conclusive than they seem even as evoked by the Advocate General.
At the very start, the Algerian secret services when interviewed by their French counterparts about the identity of a certain ‘Ellyes’ or ‘Abu Fares’, designated two men: Abdelkader Benouis who had already been convicted of the bombing of Algiers Airport in 1992, and Rachid Ramda, a member of the FIS. The British secret services, when they were interviewed, confirmed the name of Abdelkader Benouis. But the Algerian secret services, when approached again, contradicted them by saying that it was M. Ramda who was involved in the editing of Al-Ansar. From that time, and on the basis of this single assertion, the French secret services abandoned the lead that would have taken them to Abelkader Benouis.
As for the statements of Messrs. Bensaid and Bourada regarding Ellyes, the first had never met him and the second recognised Rachid Ramda in a photograph album of the British immigration services, where the only name written was ‘Elias Serbis’, that is to say the pseudonym under which M. Ramda entered the United Kingdom and which he definitively gave up for his own name at the time of his request for asylum in that year, 1993. In this case, the main statements of M. Bourada have always concerned the vital role played by Ali Touchent as the giver of orders, and the Advocate General was happy enough to evoke this person when citing the telephone book that was seized at the residence of M. Bensaid.
Next, the accounts found at the residence of M. Bensaid contained especially sums of money in foreign currencies other than British pounds, such as Belgian currency. Furthermore, French police experts have confirmed that nothing in these accounts incriminated M. Ramda. As for the telephone number ending in 405 which allowed M. Bensaid to contact Ellyes, it had been found by the British police – as the solicitors for M. Ramda, M. Sebastien Bono et M. Anne-Guillaume Serre pointed out in their supporting evidence – in the vehicle of a British citizen of Algerian origin, M. Hocine Benabdelhafid, who was also in possession of a manual on the manufacture of explosives. It must be added too that both the French and British police confirmed that they had no proof of any calls made by M. Ramda to Messrs. Bensaid and Belkacem.
Finally, the 30 Braybrooke Street address, whose keys M. Ramda had at the time of his arrest was described by the British police officers as the headquarters of Al-Ansar where everyone who was involved in the publication and distribution of the paper would regularly meet for both work and discussion. This information confirmed what M. Ramda had claimed – that this was not his place of residence; but it also made comprehensible why so much documentation concerning the GIA had been found there. Furthermore, it also provided an answer to a disconcerting fact: how was it possible that only three documents bore the fingerprints of M. Ramda? And to whom did the other fingerprints found belong? It’s as the English have stated – the French authorities did not ask for the fingerprints other than those of the accused to be searched for and that they had never tried to retrieve any documents other than those that allowed them to pursue M. Ramda.
On the other hand, M. Ramda’s activities from 1989 and 1995, put forward by Mme. Obez-Vosgien,do not at all prove his involvement in the work of the GIA to which the accused has always denied belonging, unlike Messrs. Bensaid and Belkacem.
In the first place, the Advocate General maintained that the time spent by M. Ramda at the Pakistani-Afghani border from 1990 to 1993 implicated him in armed activity in training camps for combatants and that the accused lied when he said he was doing humanitarian work with refugees. This, however, comes from a misunderstanding of the situation at that time. In effect, all specialists, like Jerome Bellion-Jourdan, political expert at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris and specialist in the humanitarian activities of the Islamic NGOs(3), agree that at the beginning of the nineteen nineties, a multitude of NGOs, of which a large number were financed by Arab countries and whose members were mainly Sudanese, Saudis, Algerians and Syrians, went to the Pakistani-Afghani border. Since the departure of the Russian troops in December 1990, they were solely concerned with the improvement of conditions in the refugee camps; it was only after 1993 that, encouraged by the Americans, the Pakistani authorities – who until then had not only supported but also encouraged these Islamic NGOs to develop but then in fear of losing control of that region ousted them in favour of the only Western ones there.
In the second place, Mme. Obez-Vosgien criticised M. Ramda for his spell in Nigeria in 1992. In this case too, the situation put forward, that of a country at that time under Sharia law, is erroneous. For it was not until 1999 that the new Nigerian Constitution made provisions for the federal states to be able to choose Islamic law(which some states in the north did) and that the federal government had also to establish a federal court of appeal and a court of final appeal using Sharia law. In 1992, the country was in fact in the hands of a military junta which refused to organise free elections, despite international pressure and which had absolutely no position on Islam.
In the third place, the Advocate General has put forward the implication of M. Ramda in the publication of Al-Ansar, the supposed ‘organ’ of the GIA and whose only function would have been to pass on the communiqués of the latter. However, the only person who has ever been criticised for that or who has been pursued over it in both the UK and in France, is M. Ramda.
In the fourth and last place, Mme. Obez-Vosgien put forward the solitary piece of material proof in her possession which was the sending of £5000 by the accused via Western Union (the equivalent at that time of around 50 thousand francs) to M. Bensaid on the 16th of October 1995. She maintained furthermore that M. Ramda was lying when he maintained that that sum matched the amount of money collected in the mosques to come to the aid of the ‘brothers’ who were imprisoned in France as this sum was far too much to have been collected in this way. Such allegations demonstrate the complete misunderstanding of the Muslim community and its place in London at that time. Indeed, the zakat, or obligatory alms, is the fourth pillar of the five pillars of Islam and amounts to a gift of one tenth of the income of the faithful. There were at that time 179 mosques and 637 500 Muslims in that capital; given that in 1995 the average monthly wage in England was £1266, the gift by a minimum of forty Muslims would have been enough to obtain the £5000 in question. Thus, the statement by M. Ramda that this sum came from the zakat with the aim of helping the ‘brothers’ imprisoned in France should not have been cast aside as if inconceivable. Quite to the contrary, this should have been the subject of an in-depth investigation: given that on the date of the 16th of October 1995 all the bombings had already been perpetrated save that of the RER station Musee d’Orsay which was committed on the 17th of October – and, for this case, a problem arises with the statements of experts that have been corroborated by the solicitors of the civil parties, which affirm that the explosive devices could not under any circumstances have been manufactured only 24 hours prior to the bombing.
The questions remain and the doubts persist
Therefore, there are certain inevitable questions which, unfortunately, will never be answered.
Firstly, since to this day, and also throughout the investigation and the debates in the first trial of M. Ramda in 2007, the famous ‘Ali Touchent’, who was designated by the French secret services as the representative in Europe of Djamel Zitouni (and who has been accused by numerous witnesses of having been, just like Zitouni, an agent of the DRS), has always been presented as the principal giver of orders for the bombings of 1995, why did he disappear from the investigation to the detriment of Rachid Ramda? And how can M. Ramda be designated as the giver of orders for the whole bombing campaign when he has been tried for only three of them?
Secondly, if M. Ramda really were the financier of these bombings, why can he be linked to only one payment made on the 16th of October 1995?
Thirdly, how can it be affirmed that M. Ramda was complicit in three bombings when the payment put forward as proof was made on the 16th of October, that is to say after the bombing of RER Saint-Michel on the 25th of July and that of Maison-Blanche on the 6th of
October, and when experts and solicitors for the civil parties agree that the latter was not financed from abroad as it had been a last minute decision in revenge for the death of M. Kelkal? Following the logic of the charge, that then leaves only the bombing of RER Orsay on the 17th of October and in this case experts and solicitors for the civil parties have admitted that the £5000 sent on the previous day could not under any circumstances have been used to manufacture the explosive devices used on the 17th of October.
It is therefore impossible to pretend that the judges followed the closing speech thanks to the implacability of its proof or thanks to the eloquence of Mme. Obez-Vosgien. The fact has to be acknowledged that the judges followed their own private convictions and made their decision on a simple majority, a majority that was so much simpler to reach as it is 5 votes to 4, than in an ordinary court of assizes appeal where the majority has to be at least 10 out of 15 (articles 359 and 362 of the penal code), a simple majority being regarded as insufficient in the event of an unfavourable decision to the accused when a life sentence could be delivered against him.
We will not be critical of the decision taken by the special court of assizes, we will simply refer to the analysis of the Syndicat de la Magistrature (Association of Magistrates) in the matter of anti-terrorist justice: “The law centralises the treatment of ‘terrorist’ matters to Paris where they are entrusted to a section of the Prosecution Service and a team of specialist investigating judges who work closely with the intelligence services. Special courts of assizes have been set up where juries have been replaced by professional magistrates. A real parallel system has been put in place with investigating judges, procurators, judges of liberty and detention, courts of assizes and soon presidents of courts of assizes, judges of penalty enforcement, all stamped ‘anti-terrorist’. The justice system, ‘the twin sister of liberty’, must be under the control of an impartial third party, which is impossible with a specialised group that functions in secret in an atmosphere of ideological warfare which is incompatible with the impartiality of justice.”
Finally, we must express our admiration for the great experience of the President of the court who allowed it, at the moment of withdrawal to deliberate, that is at 1.30 pm, to announce the time at which the session would restart to announce the verdict: 5.30 pm.
1. See Algeria-Watch, « Procès de Rachid Ramda : l’important témoignage de Nicole
Chevillard » , <www.algeria-watch.org>, October 17th, 2009.
2. According to Colonel Mohammed Samraoui, dissident of the DRS who was not heard during the examination, “the first claims of the GIA appeared in October 1992, with the diffusion of El-Ansar, the body of propaganda of this group. El-Ansar was published in London on the basis of information communicated and controlled by the DRS” (Mohammed Samraoui , Chronique des années de sang , Denoël, Paris, 2003, p. 178).
3. Presentation submitted on April 13th, 2001 within the framework of the international
symposium « ONG et action humanitaire, entre militantisme transnational et action publique », Faculté de droit et de science politique, University of La Rochelle.
4. Syndicat de la magistrature , « Texte d’appel à pétition lancé par le Comité pour
l’abrogation des lois antiterroristes, CALAS dont le Syndicat de la magistrature est signataire », <www.syndicat-magistrature.org>, June 2nd, 2009