BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union's anti-terror chief called Tuesday for countries to rehabilitate rather than punish returning jihadis with no blood on their hands, saying that some prisons have become "incubators of radicalization."
EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove said in an interview with The Associated Press that "if we can avoid prison, let's avoid prison."
At a time when EU nations are still shocked by the attacks in France early this month, many are pushing for swift, repressive measures for anyone who has gone off to fight holy war in Syria or Iraq.
And even if true criminals among the returnees need to be punished with jail time, "I don't advise to bring them all to court because it would be a mistake," De Kerchove said.
Since the Jan. 7-9 Paris attacks that killed 20 people, including the three gunmen, dozens of people have been charged in France with defending terrorism. Several were almost immediately convicted under special measures for immediate sentencing. Inciting terrorism can bring a five-year prison term — or up to seven years for inciting terrorism online.
"We know how much jails are major incubators of radicalization. Much better, provided they accept to do that, they undertake major rehabilitation," De Kerchove said.
France recently expanded prison terms for terrorism-related offenses, but the country was still caught off-guard when a member of a jihadi network worked in tandem with his brother and a former jailhouse acquaintance during three days of attacks in the Paris region.
"These people got radicalized in prison," De Kerchove said.
And for those who are convicted, he suggests jails be designed "in a way that they are not in contact with petty criminals" and instead can meet with moderate imams. Belgium is already working on such plans.
A major challenge facing the authorities is to collect evidence against foreign fighters traveling to conflict-torn Syria that would stand up in European courts.
In many cases it's virtually impossible to prove whether suspects have joined the Syrian rebels in their fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad or joined the ranks of the Islamic State group.
De Kerchove looked positively on a program for returnees in Aarhus, Denmark's second largest city, which former political extremists and foreign fighters can voluntarily join.
On Tuesday, Denmark earmarked 60.9 million kroner ($9.2 million) over the next three years for programs to de-radicalize Islamic extremists, including those who have fought with jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq.
Justice Minister Mette Frederiksen said about 7 million kroner ($1 million) will be spent on exit programs for former foreign fighters.
Swedish terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp stressed the program "is in no way a reward, a second chance on a silver plate. It is about protecting society, and avoid having people running around with a knife or an ax."
"Many countries rely on repression but punitive methods are a recipe to create resentment toward the society," Ranstorp said.
Whatever program returnees enter, it would remain a challenge to be sure when and if they are fully de-radicalized, but De Kerchove said it was "probably something achievable."
Meanwhile, anti-terror raids in France and Belgium netted five more suspects on Tuesday as Paris urged its EU partners to step up the fight against terror financing with new measures to make transactions more transparent.
Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that raids in southern France detained five people and broke up "one more network" in a small town that has seen several youths leave to fight in Syria and Iraq.
In western Belgium, authorities detained three men in an operation linked to a terror threat but they were later released and not charged, said prosecutor spokeswoman Karlien Ververken.
A raid in the eastern town of Verviers earlier this month left two suspects dead and later put seven more behind bars. Belgian authorities said that raid had averted an imminent major terrorist attack against police and their offices.
At EU headquarters, European finance ministers endorsed an anti-money laundering deal and threw their weight behind French proposals to boost intelligence-sharing on terror financing, tighten controls on virtual currencies like bitcoins and crack down on anonymous money transfers.
"We have to stop this anonymity. It is really dangerous for our citizens," French Finance Minister Michel Sapin told reporters.
The new money-laundering plan aims to ensure that the real owners of companies and trusts are listed in public registers in Europe, and to force banks, auditors, lawyers and others to be more vigilant about suspicious transactions. The measures will be debated by EU leaders on February 12.
Lorne Cook in Brussels, Lori Hinnant in Paris and Jan Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this article
Raf Casert can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert