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Criminal Trial Begins for CERN Scientist

PARIS—Particle physicist Adlène Hicheur, accused by French authorities of "associating with criminals in relation to terrorist activities," went on trial in Paris today. Police arrested the 35-year-old, Algerian-born scientist, who works for CERN in Switzerland on 8 October 2009 as he was reportedly on his way to Algeria to buy a plot of land. Hicheur has languished in Fresnes prison, near Paris, since then.

This is not a good time to begin the trial, argues Hicheur's lawyer, Patrick Baudouin. France is still recovering from the slaughter earlier this month of seven children and soldiers in Toulouse and Montauban by an Islamic radical, Mohamed Merah. The two cases are very different but could become mixed in the public mind, Baudouin warns. In an interview with French radio this morning, Baudouin said that he had wanted to ask that the trial be postponed, but that Hicheur had refused because he was eager to explain his side.

Hicheur, whose brother Halim is also a scientist, was under surveillance by the French intelligence services in 2008 after exchanging e-mails in Arabic with Mustafa Debchi, a supposed member of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, according to news reports.

Although Hicheur had "not participated in preparations" for any terrorist acts, Baudouin said, he admitted on the radio and in other interviews that Hicheur had mentioned "objectives that could be pursued," such as energy groups Total and Suez, as well as a military battalion based in Annecy, in the French Alps. Baudouin said Hicheur's comments were "perhaps debatable, disputable, open to criticism," partly because translations of the scientist's e-mails into French were "approximate or incorrect." In an interview with the Associated Press published on the website of the French newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur, Baudouin also charged that attempts had been made to buy witnesses.

An international committee has been organized to support Hicheur that includes Jack Steinberger, the 1988 Nobel Prize winner for physics. When the judicial investigation was completed last year, the group had gathered 400 signatures on a petition backing Hicheur.

If found guilty, Hicheur could face a prison sentence of 10 years.