Algeria sentences north African Qaeda leader to life in prison
ALGIERS - An Algerian court sentenced one of the most radical leaders of Al-Qaeda's north Africa branch in his absence Monday to life in prison for creating "an international terror group", his lawyer said.
After a one-day trial, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid "was sentenced to life in prison while five members of his family were sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment each for forming an armed international group", lawyer Omar Boukadouss said.
In the first trial of its kind in Algeria, a prosecutor had sought a 20-year prison sentence for the fugitive Abou Zeid for his role in kidnapping Westerners.
Four other co-accused were each sentenced to five years in jail, while two more were acquitted.
Abou Zeid, whose real identity -- Mohamed Ghdir -- was officially revealed in court, is an Algerian in his 40s from a region close to the border with Libya.
He is believed to have been under direct orders from Amari Saif, also known as Abderrezak El Para, regarded as the mastermind of the kidnapping of 32 Europeans trekking in Algeria's Sahara desert in 2003.
The group held responsible for the abductions later renamed itself Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Abou Zeid is believed responsible for a series of kidnappings, including that of Briton Edwin Dyer, who was killed in June 2009, and of five French nationals, a Madagascan and a Togolese in northern Niger in 2010.
A French woman and the two Africans have since been freed but the other French nationals are still missing.
He also allegedly carried out the abduction of 78-year-old French aid worker Michel Germaneau, who according to AQIM was killed on July 25, 2010.
Former French AQIM hostage Pierre Camatte identified Abou Zeid in October 2010 in a picture published by the group.
AQIM had detained Camatte, who worked for non-governmental organisation, for nearly three months in the Mali desert before he was freed in February 2010.
Abou Zeid heads the jihadist unit Tareq Ibn Ziyad of about 200 well-trained men, mostly from Algeria, Mauritania and Mali, and mainly based in northern Mali.
Among Abou Zeid's co-accused is a cousin of AQIM leader Laid Ghdir. He told the court that his father, Omar Ghdir, is one of Abou Zeid's deputies.
The "international terror group" was headed by Abou Zeid and active in the Algerian Sahara and the Sahel region to the south "to kidnap foreign tourists and ask for ransom", according to the prosecution.
It said Abou Zeid's new strategy was to "recruit (drugs, fuel or arms) smugglers in the Sahara and use them in their criminal plans".
Some of the accused admitted to giving Abou Zeid's group financial and logistical backing and providing fuel for which they paid with money from drug and cigarette smuggling on the border between Algeria and Libya.
They also told the court they had seen a group of hostages held by Abou Zeid in southeastern Algeria in 2003 and that they met Abderrezak El Para, real name Amari Saifi, the supposed mastermind behind the kidnapping of the Europeans, in the same area.
Chadian rebels who captured Abderrezak El Para after Libyan mediation, handed him over to Algerian security forces in 2004. He is still being held.
Algerian security forces meanwhile said that they killed the local AQIM leader in the Tizi Ouzou region, 110 kilometres (70 miles) east of Algiers, on Monday.
El-Khechkhache, real name Mohand Ouramdane, and his deputy died in the village of Azib Ahmed, about three kilometres (two miles) from Tizi Ouzou.
His group is blamed for suicide attacks in the region in the last two years.