PARIS (AP) — An Algerian-born former nuclear physicist accused of plotting with al-Qaida's north African arm to attack a French military base or economic interests went on trial Thursday, insisting he never took any step toward carrying out terrorism — and simply exchanged ideas online.
Adlene Hicheur, 35, who used to work at Europe's most prestigious particle accelerator, welcomed the chance to make his case: He's been in prison for 2-1/2 years awaiting trial. But his allies worry the timing could not be worse: it comes days after France's biggest terror attacks in years.
The case centers on about 35 emails between Hicheur and an alleged contact with Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb named Mustapha Debchi, who tried to convince him to carry out a suicide bombing. Hicheur declined, but in one response suggested striking at the barracks of a battalion of elite Alpine troops in the eastern town Cran-Gevrier.
Pressed on that by the presiding judge, Hicheur suggested he was not thinking clearly, that he was going through a "zone of turbulence" then and was on morphine to deal with the pain of a herniated disk. He entered court with a cane.
"I was out of sorts at the time," said Hicheur, who looked frail and entered the courtroom with a cane. "Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have responded to his emails."
While laid up with his herniated disk, Hicheur railed in various e-mails about the need to punish Western governments for the allegedly anti-Muslim wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, court documents show.
Hicheur described himself as a modest man of ideas and sensitive to the plight of "people in occupied areas," and explained his visits to alleged jihadist forums on the Internet as "intellectual curiosity."
"It's not because you read something that you approve of it," he said in response to questions about documents on issues like Al-Qaida and the CIA, jihad, or the use of weapons, Algeria's resistance against French colonialism or CIA recruitment tactics that were found in a police search of his home.
Hicheur, a former researcher at Switzerland's CERN lab, was arrested before dawn on Oct. 8, 2009 at his parents' home in southeastern France, hours before he was to fly to Algeria for a real estate purchase.
In court, Hicheur pointed to his academic projects and his personal history — he has no previous criminal record — as signs of someone not likely to carry out terrorism. He is also the only person to face trial in the case.
Prosecutor Guillaume Portenseigne argued that Hicheur had displayed no "disfunction in his thoughts" — and pressed the scientist to say whether he was a Salafist or pro-jihadist.
"I am a simple Muslim," he said, adding that it could take a "doctoral thesis" to explain what a jihadist was.
U.S. authorities provided French authorities with a CD-ROM, including data about email accounts that Hicheur and Debchi allegedly used, according to a court order sending the case to trial. Hicheur's nickname was Abou Doujana; they called each other brother; they wrote of jihad. At times, they used encryption software and wrote of using Paypal to send money.
They disagreed at times on strategy. If their objective was to "punish the state for its military activities in the country of Muslims (Afghanistan), then it should be a military objective," Hicheur wrote, according to an e-mail cited in the court filing. Another option was to strike at economic interests, like oil companies Exxon or Total, which tapped resources in underdeveloped countries, or targeted killings of criminals, the filing said.
The judges wrote that Hicheur, under police questioning, said he had believed Debchi was part of AQIM, but later told investigating judges that he did not.
He risks up to 10 years in prison for "criminal association with a view to plotting terrorist attacks" — a broad-ranging charge under French law which has been used to lock up hundreds of suspects since the mid-1980s.
The two-day trial comes as France's national psyche has been rocked by a new case of terrorism.
Earlier this month, in an apparently unrelated case, police say another young man of Algerian descent killed three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three paratroopers in the cities of Toulouse and Montauban and claimed ties to al-Qaida. Mohamed Merah, 23, died later in a shootout with police.
"I think that there should be no confusion between Mohamed Merah and Adlene Hicheur," said Hicheur lawyer Patrick Baudouin, who described Merah as a "crazy, dangerous criminal," with an arsenal of weapons and who said he received arms training in Pakistan.
"For Adlene Hicheur, there is nothing like that. He has a family, friends, working colleagues, a stable entourage. He has never been in Afghanistan nor in any other such country," he said.
Catherine Gaschka in Paris, and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.