Blocher defends handling of terror suspect

Blocher talked about the Achraf case for the first time on Wednesday Keystone

Justice Minister Christoph Blocher has dismissed criticism of the way Switzerland dealt with an alleged terrorist.

This content was published on November 3, 2004

He said the security services had handled the case “outstandingly” well, and blamed an “information breakdown” for the failure to reveal the suspect’s role in a Spanish bomb plot.

Blocher’s comments came as the Swiss Federal Prosecutor held talks in Spain on the case.

The 31-year-old suspect, Mohamed Achraf, was arrested for theft and immigration violations in Switzerland at the end of August and was awaiting deportation. He has resisted attempts to extradite him to Spain.

Spanish media

The Federal Prosecutor’s Office has admitted that the first it learnt of Achraf’s presence in Switzerland was when it was reported by Spanish media.

He was being held in a low-security detention centre in Zurich awaiting deportation when his alleged terror link surfaced last month - when Spanish police told the media before they informed the Swiss authorities.

“I consider that [to be] an information breakdown,” Blocher said, adding that he wants Spain to explain why the Swiss authorities were not told before the story appeared in the media.

But Blocher said the way the Achraf case was dealt with in Switzerland showed the “professionalism” of Switzerland’s security system. “It was handled outstandingly,” he added.

Intelligence failure?

The complex structure of Switzerland’s intelligence service has been blamed for the failure to reveal Achraf’s alleged role in the bomb plot and to locate a second suspect.

Critics have also hinted at rivalries between the internal intelligence service and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, which is in charge of ordering arrests and phone tapping.

Meanwhile, the Swiss Federal Prosecutor, Valentin Roschacher, is in Madrid to discuss the Achraf case.

A spokesman for the Federal Prosecutor’s Office said Roschacher would meet Spanish justice and police officials to discuss cooperation in the investigation into the Islamic cell behind the attack, of which Achraf is alleged to be the leader.

Spain suspects Achraf of being the mastermind behind a planned attack on the National Court in Madrid and has called for his deportation.

He allegedly recruited members for his terror cell while serving time in Spain for credit card fraud between 1999 and 2002.

According to Spanish intelligence information leaked to the media, he was also planning robberies in Switzerland to finance the attack, and may have carried out at least one major theft.

Asylum request

Achraf was fingerprinted by the Swiss authorities in April 2003, when he made a request for asylum using a Palestinian alias. His application was turned down six months later after officials established he was a North African.

Achraf then went underground, but is believed to have travelled out of Switzerland on several occasions, most likely to Spain and Germany.

He reportedly travelled to Spain with a suitcase of cash in July, using a fake French passport, to meet with members of his cell before returning to Switzerland in August.

The Swiss authorities have so far refused to comment on a report by the Spanish judge leading the investigation, Baltasar Garzón, that a second terror suspect was living in Switzerland and had escaped arrest.

Achraf is alleged to have asked the man, known as Salim, to build the bomb that was destined for the National Court.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

A Spanish judge has also filed terrorism charges on twelve North Africans, including, Mohamed Achraf, said to belong to the cell involved in the plot to bomb that National Court.
The judge first charged 18 people in connection with the case in October. These latest suspects were arrested last week.
Officials say the cell was set up by Achraf while he was in prison in Spain.

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