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France defends jail terms for pro-terror tweeters

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France defends jail terms for pro-terror tweeters
Returning French jihadists and those who glorified the terror attacks are swelling record prisoner numbers in France. Photo: AFP
14:44 CET+01:00
UPDATED: France's justice minister said on Tuesday the country's culture demanded punishment, not 'de-radicalization', for returning jihadists, and denied French courts had trampled on freedom of speech in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks.

Speaking to the foreign press on Tuesday Christiane Taubira, who will visit the US next month, defended France’s tough stance on those who had "glorified" the Paris terror attacks as well as the country's preference for jailing returning jihadists.

The approach was necessitated, the minister said, because of the culture in France which demands: “The people who cross the line have to be punished, full stop."

Her view was backed up by a poll for Europe1 and Le Monde which showed 90 percent of French people wanted more repression after the terror attacks and the vast majority want tougher prison sentences for those  who preach extremism in prison.

France has come under fire from civil liberty groups, including Amnesty International, for its tough crackdown on those who expressed support for the terrorist acts committed by Amedy Coulibaly and Cherif and Saïd Kouachi.

Since the three were killed by police in twin assaults on January 9th, dozens of legal cases have been opened against people accused of glorifying terrorism, with some having been handed prison sentences for remarks they made on Twitter or in public.

In one case a man from Toulouse was jailed for saying: “The Kouachi brothers are only the first ones, I should have been with them so we could have killed more people."

In an editorial on its website,  Amnesty International's John Dalhuisen said: “It's not the time to open legal procedures inspired by hot reactions, but rather to establish thoughtful measures that protect lives and respect the rights of all.”

But it wasn't only civil liberty groups who pointed out issues with France’s crackdown.

The lawyer of one imprisoned pro-Kouachi tweeter said: “Are French prisons ready to take in 40,000 people because they made a bad joke on Twitter?"

But on Tuesday Taubira told members of the Anglo-American Press Association (AAPA), including The Local, that the current context of post-terror attacks meant tough punishments were justified in a country left jittery and asking questions about security.

“I wouldn’t say the [prison sentences] are excessive. French society is confronted by a situation where we are legitimately asking ourselves about our security. It’s a unique context. These are acts of terrorism,” she stressed.

Taubira said that she had sent out a circular to those involved in France's legal system asking them to be “reactive” but “not create a kind of hysteria” in the country around those who make threats.

“The response has to be individualized. Magistrates know they have to look at each case on its own merits. It’s not because someone prays ‘Allahu Akbar’ in the middle of the street that they are a terrorist,” she said, while acknowledging the difficulty in "finding the right balance between the need for security and respect for liberty'. 

Last week French PM Manuel Valls announced a raft of "exceptional measures" to combat the threat of terrorism in France, including extending a pilot scheme that sees radicalized inmates housed together.

Taubira said the prison population, especially the most vulnerable, had to be protected from extremists.

The purpose of housing radicalized prisoners together, she said, was not just to identify them and put them under surveillance, but to “protect the general prison population from the influence of those who preach extremism”.

The most radicalized inmates, Taubira said, will be held in isolation.

France’s legal system has shown a tough approach to returning jihadists with Taubira revealing there were 110 cases pending against those who have returned from the Middle East.

It is likely that many will end up back in prison, the very place where authorities are trying to tackle radicalization.  

In November the first jihadist to stand trial after having returned from fighting in Syria was handed a seven-year prison sentence, despite claiming to have spent just 12 days in the war-torn country.

While Denmark as well as the UK have put in place a programme of de-radicalization to try and reintegrate returning jihadists into mainstream France, Taubira, while seemingly in favour herself, believes the French people are not ready to accept this kind of option.

“Right now France was not ready to hear about” programmes of de-radicalization, she said.

“For over a year I have been trying to convince people that academics must help us understand this phenomenon, but programmes of de-radicalization and "disindoctrination" are not in the French culture.

“The people who cross the line have to be punished, full stop,” she said.

Taubira said she was convinced that certain returning jihadists could dissuade others from heading to the Middle East by telling them of the “horror and the madness” of the battlefields.

“I think to protect people in the long term…. we’ll need to 'disindoctrinate' the terrorists,” she said.

The current French approach towards returning jihadis seems to be running contrary to the way of thinking of the EU.

On Tuesday the EU's anti-terror chief Gilles de Kerchove called for countries to rehabilitate rather than punish returning jihadis, telling the Associated Press that some prisons have become "incubators of radicalization."

"If we can avoid prison, let's avoid prison," he said.

"We know how much jails are major incubators of radicalization. Much better, provided they accept to do that, they undertake major rehabilitation," De Kerchove told AP.

In the meantime we can expect France's prisons, already bulging at the seams, to have to make more room, whether it's for jihadists or for those who express support for acts of terrorism.

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