TEHRAN (AFP) – Iran confirmed it will put on trial members of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terror network that Tehran has been unable to extradite that could include senior figures. “If their nationality is not clear and if no country will accept them, we will do what the information minister said,” and try them in Iran, foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said Monday.
Intelligence Minister Ali Yunessi was quoted in the media on Saturday as saying Iran could put on trial some senior al-Qaeda members whom it has been unable to extradite.
However, the press quoted different versions of his comments and, until Monday, Tehran provided no official clarification of its position.
The Islamic republic has declined to reveal the identities of the terror suspects it is holding.
Asefi said it would be in breach of national security to reveal the names of the prisoners, refusing to confirm whether Saif al-Adel, the third most senior member of al-Qaeda, is among them.
But US officials and the Arab press say Kuwaiti-born al-Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Gaith; Osama bin Laden’s son, Saad; and Jordanian Abu Masab al-Zarwaqi, a close aide to bin Laden, are among those under arrest in Iran.
Two of the three al-Qaeda strongmen # Saad bin Laden and Abu Ghaith # have been stripped of their Saudi and Kuwaiti nationalities, respectively.
Confirmation that Tehran will try suspects in Iran marks a change in the Islamic republic’s policy and could provoke hostile rebukes from Washington.
After acknowledging it was holding “important and less important members” of al-Qaeda, the government said they would be extradited to their own countries or deported back where they came from, and only tried in Iran if guilty of crimes against national security.
Washington accuses Tehran of harbouring al-Qaeda leaders and allowing them to establish a base of operations in Iran. It has linked them to the May 12 suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia that killed 35, including nine Americans. Iran has refuted those allegations.
US officials had hoped, albeit tentatively, that Iran would deport the suspects to the United States, although there are no diplomatic relations between the two countries or an extradition treaty.
Iran has also denied attempts to exchange the suspects with members of the Iranian armed opposition People’s Mujahedeen, many of whom are in US-supervised camps in Iraq.
Nevertheless, Tehran has faced immense difficulties in its bid to extradite the suspects.
“Abu Gaith is not Kuwaiti, we do not care much for him. His citizenship was withdrawn,” Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah said on July 26.
In addition, Iran has only limited diplomatic relations with Egypt, making it probable that Adel, if indeed under arrest, will remain in the Islamic republic.
One paper interpreted the change of policy as evidence that extradition talks between Tehran and Kuwait failed, saying Tehran feared an al-Qaeda attack if the suspects were sent to the United States.