Bosnia: Islamists Furious Over Arab Extraditions

The decision to hand Arab terrorist suspects over to the Americans highlights powerlessness of the Bosnian authorities.

Bosnia: Islamists Furious Over Arab Extraditions

The decision to hand Arab terrorist suspects over to the Americans highlights powerlessness of the Bosnian authorities.

Six Arabs allegedly plotting to strike at American targets in Bosnia were last night, Thursday, dramatically transferred to a US base in the country, provoking local Islamist fury and leaving the judiciary in disarray.


The Bosnian supreme court ordered six Algerians to be released on Thursday due to lack of evidence. They were then handed over to American officials and rumours spread that they would be dispatched to the US base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where some 80 Taleban and al-Qaeda prisoners are being detained.


Following the court decision, groups of people gathered around the main prison in the centre of Sarajevo. Some 200 Islamic protestors lay in the path of police vehicles trying to ferry the alleged militants away.


Amid chants of "Allah Akbar", one of the protestors, Jasmin, told IWPR, "We are the ones protecting the law and not the police".


It wasn't just the protestors who deemed the Bosnian court's move unlawful. It was also opposed by the supreme judicial body in the country, the Human Rights Chamber, comprising of 6 Bosnian and 7 international judges.


Nadja Dizdarevic, wife of one of the Arab suspects, Boudalla Haj, told journalists her husband was innocent and there were no grounds for his extradition. "It means that the Americans are at war with Islam, not terrorism," she said.


The stand-off between the Islamic youth and the police lasted until early Friday when around 400 well-equipped policemen dispersed the demonstrators and deported the al-Qaeda suspects to an American base in Bosnia, thought to be either Butmir near Sarajevo or Vitina in Tuzla.


These events were the consequence of three months of judicial confusion. The Bosnian police had arrested the suspects in October at the request of US officials in Bosnia who suspected them of plotting to attack American targets.


US suspicions were based on the monitoring of mobile telephone conversations between the six suspects.


The arrests caused a sensation in Bosnia, with the American and British embassies briefly closed because of fears that Islamic militants might strike.


Top NATO officials announced that the arrests had effectively "disrupted" a network linked to the al-Qaeda organisation. Alliance officials congratulated the Bosnian authorities on their good work.


First to be detained was Bensayah Belkacem, allegedly a key link to the Saudi dissident leader Osama bin Laden. He was held in the town of Zenica on October 8. Five other Algerians were arrested in Sarajevo on October 18 and 19.


According to sources close to the investigation, the key suspect, Belkacem, used his Yemeni passport to obtain Bosnian identity card and passport under the name of Abdulkarim Al-Sabahi. He was initially charged only with forging documents.


The five other Algerians were Saber Lahmar, Ait Idir Mustafa, Boudella Haj, Boumediene Lakhdar, and Nechle Mohamed. Lahmar was the only one of the six who did not hold Bosnian citizenship.


According to Time magazine, one of the intercepted phone conversations was between two men who spoke of the need to retaliate for US attacks in Afghanistan. The title reported that one of them said, "Tomorrow, we will start."


Time and numerous other media also reported that the mobile phone belonging to Belkacem contained in its memory the telephone number of a close associate of Bin Laden, Abu Bakr Zubaydah.


Lahmar was sentenced in 1998 by a local court to five years in prison for two car thefts in Zenica. He was pardoned on January 6, 2000, and in April 2001 he married a woman from Sarajevo whose father worked as a housekeeper at the US embassy in the capital.


Police suspected that Lahmar could have learned important details about the embassy's premises, security measures and the movements of senior officials.


Many reports speculated that his connection with the embassy was the reason for its closure. The fact that it reopened soon after Lahmar and the other Algerians were arrested, and that Lahmar's father-in-law was immediately fired, added further fuel to the theory.


Lahmar's wife, Enisa Susic, strongly denied he was guilty. She told IWPR that her husband - who used to work as a librarian at the mosque of the King Fahd Islamic Center in Sarajevo - planned to go to Syria to continue his education there.


Enisa's father, Mesud, said he never talked to his son-in-law about his work at the embassy, adding that their contacts were very limited because of the Algerian's poor Bosnian.


As for the other four suspects, no additional information has been made public and it is believed they were arrested because of their relatively frequent telephone contacts with the two leading suspects.


The detention of the alleged terrorists left the Bosnian judiciary in a difficult situation. According to judicial sources, the Americans did not hand over the tapes they said they possessed of intercepted telephone conversations suggesting the group was planning an attack.


This was one of the main reasons behind the Bosnian supreme court's decision to free the suspects.


The tapes, if they indeed did exist, had probably been made by one of the US intelligence agencies, which had no authority to tap telephones in Bosnia.


Sources close to the authorities say the Bosnian government's decision to deliver the alleged terrorists to the Americans was above all a political one.


If the suspects were kept in prison, without evidence, the authorities would have found themselves under attack from the Bosnian public for breaching the country's legal procedures. However, if they were freed, the international community would single out Bosnia as a country that harbours terrorism. Obviously fear of Western retribution prevailed.


Rasim Kadic, a high-ranking official in the state authorities, said the government's move was partly a response to American demands and partly due to their view that the suspects were probably guilty.


Senad Slatina is a journalist of Bosnia weekly Slobodna Bosna.


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