By James Dacey
The BBC is reporting that the physicist Adlène Hicheur has been sentenced by a French court to five years in prison.
Hicheur, a 35-year-old French-Algerian, was arrested by French police on 8 October 2009 on suspicion of having links with the organization al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Until his arrest, Hicheur was a postdoc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and worked on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
During his time in custody, Hicheur had received support from some members of the physics community. In November 2010 the Nobel laureate Jack Steinberger and 18 other physicists wrote to the French Physical Society about their concerns over the continued imprisonment of Hicheur without charge. Hicheur also received support from an “international defence committee”, consisting of about 100 scientists, which wrote to French authorities including the French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
In January 2011 the Swiss authorities announced they would be closing the case into the actions of Hicheur. But the French authorities did not follow suit, and French pre-emptive anti-terrorism laws dictate that any person can be held in prison for up to two and a half years without charge.
According to the BBC article, today’s guilty verdict is based on police-intercepted e-mails from Hicheur to an alleged contact in al-Qaeda. The e-mails apparently suggest that Hicheur was willing to be part of an “active terrorist unit”, attacking targets in France.
Michael Dittmar, a researcher based at ETH Zurich and CERN who had written an article in support of Hicheur in the May 2011 issue of Physics World, expressed his surprise at the verdict. “I just heard it in shock,” he told physicsworld.com.
Dittmar said that he did not want to comment directly on the verdict, having not seen the e-mail exchanges. He did, however, restate his criticism of the French legal system. “It is totally unacceptable to put someone in prison for 2.5 years without charge, to allow the leak of some info to the media about the reasons, resulting in increased fears within society, and all this most likely for some political interests.”