VI. Impact on Muslim Communities in France

The fight against terrorism is also and perhaps above all a long-term battle of ideas.

—Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister216

It’s normal that they want to protect their country, but it’s the way they do it! You have to avoid injustice. And then there are the assumptions, like being a Muslim means being a militant.

—Bilal M., man who served a six-month prison sentence for criminal association in relation to a terrorist undertaking217

The fight against Islamist or international terrorism has targeted a defined, if large and diverse community—Muslims—in a way that the fight against other types of terrorism never have. France is home to anywhere between three and five million Muslims, up to an estimated 10 percent of the overall population and the largest Muslim population in Western Europe. Perhaps half to three-fifths are French citizens, while the rest are nationals of other countries (though they may have lived in France for decades or even their entire lives).

A 2006 French government white paper on domestic security against terrorism affirmed the government’s commitment “never [t0] compromise the fundamental values of the rule of law” in the fight against terrorism, to reject any conflation of Islam with terrorism, and to pursue a communications policy designed to “build a wide consensus, integrating first and foremost the fraction of the population the terrorists claim to speak for …”218

Excesses in the name of preventing terrorism, even if this fight is framed within the criminal justice system, are likely to be counterproductive as they alienate entire Muslim communities rather than isolate the extremists from those broader communities.

The broad scope for arrest and remand to pretrial detention under the charge of criminal association in relation to a terrorist undertaking, as well as ill-treatment and religious-based harassment in police custody, fuel a perception among Muslims that all Muslims are suspect in the eyes of French authorities. Interrogations of terrorism suspects in police custody often include questions about religious beliefs and practices.219 Women who wear a religious headdress are invariably asked why; men are asked their views on women’s equality.

Abusive and discriminatory measures can actually serve to radicalize individuals already vulnerable, for whatever personal, socioeconomic, or political reasons, to extremist views. One counterterrorism official acknowledged this risk, recalling,

There was one guy who was arrested because he was in someone’s address book. I had the opportunity to talk with him during his four days in police custody. He worked in a garage. [After the arrest] he lost his job, he lost his girlfriend. He was diminished in his mother’s eyes because he brought shame on the family when the police came to arrest him. If he wasn’t a terrorist before, that experience radicalized him. If before he went to Bosnia to act the big guy, now he’ll be willing to go to Iraq. And it will be our fault.220

Several lawyers also told Human Rights Watch they had seen clients become more and more alienated and vulnerable to radicalism after time in pretrial detention, while former detainees and their spouses talked also about the effects on children.

Salima Benmessahel, the wife of a man who spent three years in pretrial detention before being sentenced to exactly three years in prison on what she views as trumped-up terrorism charges, told us, “I can see how these guys convicted of terrorism who didn’t do anything get out of prison and want to go blow themselves up. They go in normal and come out enraged.” She told of the time her five-year-old son wanted to keep all the car windows rolled up despite the heat of the day because he was worried that if the police heard them listening to the Koran on tape “they’d send us to prison too.” Two years after Benmessahel’s husband was released from prison in March 2005, French authorities rescinded his acquired French citizenship and expelled him in April 2007 to Algeria.221

During the first of Abdul N.’s four arrests on suspicion of terrorism, he spent four months in pretrial detention and was then acquitted at trial. The second time he spent six and a half months awaiting trial and was then convicted of dealing in stolen merchandise without any connection to a terrorism offense. The third time he was placed under judicial supervision until the charges were dropped. The last time he was arrested was June 2006. On that occasion, his wife was also arrested and spent one day in police custody with her two-month-old baby. Abdul N. spent nine-and-a-half months in pretrial detention before being released under judicial supervision. He is currently awaiting trial. “Every time they arrest me, they say, ‘we know you’re not a bad guy, but you know lots of people.’”

Abdul N. says he wants to leave France, for his own sake and that of his six children. “My children are paying the price. My oldest son, he’s sick of France. He doesn’t want to go to school anymore. He’s really disoriented, he lived through all the arrests.”222

One man who was arrested and held for twenty-four hours before being released without charge said, “It’s not so much the police custody … it’s the manipulation in the name of the fight against terrorism. They could have just called me in, I would have gone, why put on such a spectacle? They violate our principles but it’s accepted in order to defend the rights of some. They’re not going to avoid problems by harassing people, that’s going to stir up rancor and hatred—that’s what I’m afraid of.”223

Abusive security measures that disproportionately affect Muslims are likely to undermine confidence in law enforcement and security forces among the very communities whose cooperation is critical in the fight against terrorism. Successful policing, and preventing and prosecuting terrorism, require public cooperation and in particular tip-offs about suspicious activity. Neighbors, acquaintances, and family members are far less likely to report concerns if they lack confidence that authorities will act justly.

216 Speech to day-long conference, “Prevailing against Terrorism” November 17, 2005.

217 Human Rights Watch interview with Bilal M. (pseudonym), Paris, February 25, 2008.

218 Dominique De Villepin, Prevailing against Terrorism: White Paper on Domestic Security against Terrorism, La Documentation Francaise, 2006, p. 115, (accessed March 18, 2008). Then-Prime Minister De Villepin commissioned this inter-agency assessment of the terrorist threat and France’s counterterrorism policy.

219 Human Rights Watch interviews with Salima Benmessahel, January 29; Rachida Alam, Paris, January 29; Abdul N., February 25; Bilal M., February 25; and Emmanuel Nieto, February 28, 2008.

220 Human Rights Watch interview with counterterrorism official who requested anonymity, Paris, December 12, 2007.

221 Human Rights Watch interview with Salima Benmessahel, January 29, 2008.

222 Human Rights Watch interview with Abdul N., February 25, 2008.

223 Human Rights Watch interview with Doudou F. (pseudonym), Paris, December 11, 2007.