NEW: Lawyer: The Forsane Alizza group wants to protect the rights of Muslims in France
The Islamist group's leader says it had no contact with gunman Merah, his lawyer says
19 suspected members of the Forsane Alizza group were arrested Friday, authorities said
Police have been investigating whether Merah, blamed for 7 deaths, acted alone
The leader of an Islamist group whose members were targeted in a series of French police raids denies any contact with Toulouse gunman Mohammed Merah, lawyer Philippe Missamou said Saturday.
The leader of the Forsane Alizza group, Mohammed Achamlane, was among 19 people arrested Friday over alleged connections to radical Islam, Missamou said.
The raids came a week after Merah, who killed seven people in a series of attacks, was shot dead after a long siege in the southwestern city of Toulouse.
French media reports suggested Merah had developed connections with the pro-al Qaeda group, which has a cluster of followers in Toulouse.
Forsane Alizza was outlawed in January for encouraging French citizens to travel to Afghanistan to fight jihad.
Missamou told CNN he had last spoken to Achamlane on Monday.
At this time, Achamlane told him that the group had not had contact with Merah, and that it had nothing to do with Merah’s killings in Toulouse, Missamou said.
Achamlane said the group did not support armed combat, the attorney said.
Missamou expects to be allowed to meet with members of the group, which he has represented since January, on Monday or Tuesday.
After that they will be put before a judge and either placed under further examination with charges pending, or released, he said.
Missamou disputed the Interior Ministry’s claim that all 19 people arrested are members of Forsane Alizza, saying several were not.
Friday’s arrests took place in Toulouse, Marseille, Nantes, Lyon and the Ile de France region, around Paris, the Interior Ministry said.
The ministry’s media office said “the police had plans to carry out 19 arrests, and therefore 19 arrests were made in connection with the group Forsane Alizza.”
Interior Minister Claude Gueant said that several firearms, including five rifles, four automatic weapons and three Kalashnikovs, had been found in searches of the suspects’ homes, as well as a bulletproof vest.
Missamou said he had no information on the claims that firearms were found.
He also said he did not know know whether members of the group have spent time in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
The lawyer disputes the characterization of the group as dangerous, saying it works to contest perceived injustice on the part of the French state.
Its members claim that France does not recognize the multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-religious nature of the country, and passes laws which target Muslims in France, he said.
Police have been investigating whether Merah acted alone in planning his attacks.
He is blamed for the killings of three French paratroopers, a rabbi and three Jewish children ages 4, 5 and 7. Two other people were seriously wounded in the shootings.
Merah told police he had attended an al Qaeda training camp while visiting Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Paris prosecutor Francois Molins.
But his uncle, Jamal Azizi, denied statements by French authorities that Merah was an al Qaeda sympathizer and that he had traveled to Afghanistan or Pakistan to train to use arms.
Merah was buried Thursday at a cemetery outside Toulouse.
CNN’s Anna Prichard contributed to this report.