Court says French militant can be stripped of nationality

PARIS (AFP) - France’s top legal body ruled Friday that stripping a binational convicted Islamic militant of his French nationality was lawful, just as the country upped its fight against extremism.

The ruling by the Constitutional Council comes after the government announced a series of anti-terror measures in the wake of the deadly Paris attacks earlier this month and mulls whether to use this move more widely.

Ahmed Sahnouni, a Moroccan naturalised by France in 2003, was convicted and handed a seven-year prison term in March 2013 for being part of a terrorist organisation and was stripped of his citizenship in May last year.

Born in Casablanca in 1970, he was convicted of overseeing recruitment networks of aspiring militants to Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and the Sahel region of North Africa, raising funds for them and also of overseeing the operational coordination of volunteers once on the ground.

Under French law, authorities can strip people of their naturalised citizenship if they are convicted of “terror acts” – but only if they have another nationality to fall back on. The measure has been used eight times since 1973.

The law also states that a person’s nationality can be removed anytime during a 15-year period after being naturalised, or 15 years after being convicted of terror acts – up from 10 years previously.

‘MORE FRENCH THAN OTHERS?’

Sahnouni’s lawyer Nurettin Meseci argued that the law creates inequalities between those who are French by birth and those who are naturalised.

“Are there French people who are more French than others?” he asked in court.

He also argued that the move aimed to expel his client to Morocco, “where he risks being sentenced to 20 years in prison.”

Added to this, Meseci said that increasing the time period during which a person can be stripped of their nationality from 10 to 15 years was “disproportionate.”

But the Constitutional Council ruled that the seriousness of the fight against extremism justified the move and did not “violate the principle of equality.”

Meseci said Friday he regretted the “emotional context” in which the decision had been taken.

The ruling comes as France still reels from the Jan 7-9 attacks in Paris that left 17 people dead, sending shockwaves around the world.

On Wednesday, the government unveiled a raft of measures to curb radicalisation and better monitor Islamic extremists.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the attacks had raised “a legitimate question” as to what should be done about those who attack the country of their birth, or which gave them citizenship.

GOVERNMENT WELCOMES RULING

Where foreign radicals were concerned, Valls said 28 people had been expelled from France over the past three years.

For those who are French, he proposed a cross-party debate on bringing back the offence of “national disgrace” – used after World War II against collaborators with the Nazi regime and abolished in 1951.

Less severe than treason, and allowing authorities to strip citizens of some rights, Valls said that reviving the offence would be a strong symbol of “the consequences of... committing a terrorist act.”

On Friday, he welcomed the Constitutional Council ruling.

“We must absolutely not deprive ourselves of the means provided by law to assert our values and say we don’t accept that those we welcomed on our soil can attack and threaten France,” Valls said.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, meanwhile, said the government would continue to strip those found guilty of “acts of terrorism” of their nationality.

The Constitutional Council’s decision also comes at a time of serious diplomatic crisis between France and Morocco over torture complaints filed against top Moroccan officials last year.

Since then, bilateral judicial relations have been cut and anti-terrorism cooperation frozen.