PARIS: Three young men were convicted and handed prison sentences Friday for trying to travel to Syria, a magnet for foreign fighters, even though they never left France.
The convictions by a Paris court were thought to be the first in France of potential jihadi fighters for Syria. The prison sentences show that justice intends to be tough on the scores of young French Muslims drawn to the Syrian civil war - even if they never make it to their destination.
The court handed down prison terms ranging from two to five years for criminal association with the intent to commit terrorist acts, a sweeping charge used in France to cast a wide net in terror cases.
French authorities, like their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, are deeply concerned about the attraction the three-year war exerts on western Muslims. They fear a potential threat from returning fighters, fully radicalized and with battle-honed skills.
Even young French adolescents have made their way to Syria, or tried to go. A 14-year-old girl was stopped last week before boarding her flight to Turkey, the common route to Syria, according to the prosecutor's office in Grenoble, her hometown.
French authorities have said that more than 600 French had left for Syria, were plotting to go or have returned. More than 20 French have been killed in the fighting.
"This is a message being sent to all people tempted by similar adventures," attorney Julien Fresnault said of the verdict. The court was "anticipating a danger, but there are no (terrorist) acts" in the case. His client, Youssef Ettaoujar, 26, received a five-year prison term with one year suspended - the toughest sentence of the three.
The three men, aged between 21 and 26, were arrested in 2012 as they tried to board a plane for Turkey. They contended during their February trial that their objective was humanitarian, not fighting battles.