by Laurent Lozano
TEHRAN - Iran confirmed Tuesday that it has tried and sentenced fugitive members of Al-Qaeda detained on its soil, but maintained a tight secrecy over which members of Osama bin Laden's network were in the Islamic republic.
"The sentences have been pronounced," a Tehran justice department official told AFP, confirming a report from the semi-official Fars news agency that all Al-Qaeda detainee cases had been treated in Tehran by a "special judge".
But the official refused to say who the accused were, how many of them there were, nor what verdicts were reached or sentences handed out.
"The verdicts will be made public when the legal obstacles related to such an announcement are lifted," added the official.
Quoted by Fars, the head of Tehran's judiciary Abbas Ali Alizadeh said the "judgements pronounced conform totally to the law and the top officials of the regime are satisfied by the sentences."
No further details were immediately available.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the subsequent toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Iranian officials announced a number of fugitive Al-Qaeda members had been arrested.
And then in 2003, the Islamic republic declared that it was also holding senior members of bin Laden's network, but officials have cited national security as the reason for not divulging the identities of those detained.
Iran also said those Al-Qaeda operatives not extradited to their country of origin or deemed to have acted against the Islamic republic's national security -- a charge that can carry the death penalty -- would be tried in Iranian courts.
Exactly who has been held in Iran has been the subject of intense speculation, with diplomats and Arab press reports pointing to the possible presence of the movement's spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Gaith, its number-three Saif al-Adel, as well as bin Laden's son and Al-Qaeda heir, Saad.
Last month the foreign ministry said "a few middle-ranking members" were in prison.
But Iran has remained tight-lipped over who it is holding, and its perceived ambiguity over the issue has prompted US allegations that the Islamic republic has been harbouring and even collaborating with members of Al-Qaeda.
Indirect talks between Iran and the United States on a possible exchange of Al-Qaeda members and top Iranian armed rebels from the Iraq-based People's Mujahedeen reportedly broke down in 2003.
And in February, Spain's top anti-terror judge Baltasar Garzon alleged Al-Qaeda had a "board of managers" operating in Iran.
Iran has extradited some 500 people who crossed into its territory from Afghanistan, some of them suspected low-ranking Al-Qaeda members or Taliban sympathisers -- but foreign diplomats involved in that process complained of "mixed signals", "last minute changes of plan" and "a lot of disinformation" on the part of Iran.
The Iranian regime, headed by Shiite clerics, was fiercely hostile to Afghanistan's extremist Sunni Muslim Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and has vehemently denied allegations that it is supporting them.
In late 1998 Iran even went to the brink of attacking Afghanistan in retaliation for the murder of its diplomats by the Taliban and suspected non-Afghan fighters -- possibly attached to Al-Qaeda -- in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.