- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

PARIS If Osama bin Laden wants to escape death, he has one sure-fire route to safety: Find his way to Europe and turn himself in.

No European country applies the death penalty, and none will extradite suspects to a country, such as the United States, where they might face execution.

The issue highlights potential cracks in the international coalition against terrorism, as U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has been reminded on a tour of European capitals this week.

Mr. Ashcroft said in London Wednesday that Washington would deal with extradition requests "on a case-by-case basis," suggesting that under some circumstances, the United States is ready to pledge that a terrorist suspect would not face the death penalty. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is working to ensure that any al Qaeda members caught in Afghanistan will be punished harshly.

Dozens of suspected al Qaeda operatives have been arrested in Europe since September 11. Some are believed to have been directly involved in the attacks on Washington and New York.

One of them is Algerian pilot Lotfi Raissi, who U.S. investigators say trained the man who flew an airliner into the Pentagon. He has been indicted on 12 charges in Phoenix, and his extradition hearing is under way in London.

But if Mr. Raissi were to face charges that could carry the death penalty, he would not be sent to America. Like all other European countries, Britain has incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into its law. That convention bans the death penalty and other "inhuman treatment."

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, has ruled that extraditing a suspect to face the death penalty elsewhere constitutes "inhuman treatment."

"There are no exceptions to this, and I don't think the court will change its case law," said Guy de Vel, director-general of legal affairs at the Council of Europe, which oversees the convention. "The only option is for [the United States] to guarantee they will not apply the death penalty."

There are precedents for such guarantees. In 1998, the U.S. Justice Department persuaded Germany to extradite Mamdouh Mahmoud Salim, now awaiting trial in New York in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, by promising he would not be executed if found guilty.

President Bush's plan to try some terror suspects in special military tribunals, which would not offer normal constitutional guarantees, is also an obstacle.

The Spanish government told U.S. authorities it will not extradite any of the 14 al Qaeda suspects it is holding without a promise they would be tried in civilian courts.

"The idea [of military tribunals] has a very bad sound to Spaniards," said Manuel Sanchez de Diego, a law professor at Complutense University in Madrid. Spain was rife with such courts during the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco.

Mr. Bush has said he favors military tribunals in certain cases, in which conventional trials might reveal intelligence-gathering methods. U.S. judicial authorities have not yet requested the extradition of any of the suspects in Spanish jails, but U.S. officials are pressing the Spanish government to allow U.S. investigators to interrogate the suspects.

The attorney general will address a similar case in talks with German authorities. German police have arrested Mounir Motassadeq. They say he had power of attorney over a bank account in the name of one of the September 11 hijackers.

One European suspect in the attacks, Frenchman Zacarias Moussaoui, does not stand to benefit from European laws because he was arrested in the United States in August on immigration charges. Believed to have been the 20th intended hijacker, Mr. Moussaoui was indicted this week on six counts, four of which could carry the death penalty.

"If the Americans condemn him to death, there will be a direct conflict with France" supposedly one of Washington's leading allies in the war against terrorism said Barthelemy Courmont, an analyst at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations.

As for bin Laden, falling into European hands would not necessarily save him: The writ of the European human rights convention does not hold in Afghanistan. If British troops capture him there, Prime Minister Tony Blair has said, they would have no compunction about handing him over to the Americans.

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