Trade center bombers jailed 240 years each

May 25, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK -- Shouting their defiance, four Islamic militants were each sentenced yesterday to 240 years in prison without parole for last year's bombing of the World Trade Center.

In imposing the maximum possible punishment for what the government has termed "the worst act of terrorism in U.S. history," U.S. District Judge Kevin T. Duffy called the defendants sneaks and cowards.

"What you sought to do in the name of Islam," he admonished them, ". . . violated the laws not only of man, but God."

The noontime explosion on Feb. 26, 1993, killed six people, injured more than 1,000 and filled the 110-story twin towers with smoke and flames.

It also shattered America's sense of post-Cold War invulnerability and the belief that terrorism was an overseas phenomenon.

Evidence presented during the trial showed that the defendants had sought to punish Americans for their support of Israel by targeting one of the nation's best-known landmarks.

"There has been no remorse shown, merely arrogance and nothing else," Judge Duffy said as he sentenced the principal defendant, Mohammed A. Salameh, 26, who allegedly rented the van that carried the 1,200-pound bomb into the trade center's underground garage. "Somehow you have a sense of achievement. Perhaps you feel you are a martyr."

Federal authorities broke the case last year after tracing the rented van to Salameh through an identification number found on a piece of debris.

"You chose a site to kill the greatest number of people possible," the judge told Salameh.

If the bomb had been placed at the base of the trade center's north tower, he observed, "as many as 10,000 deaths could have resulted."

Outside the federal courthouse, where a jury had convicted the defendants March 4, dozens of New York police stood behind barricades to guard against violent demonstrations or perhaps another bombing attempt.

But no trouble ensued.

Salameh, like the other defendants, said in remarks before sentencing that the lengthy jury trial had been infected with bias because of unfair treatment by "the media in the United States and Europe."

He and his accomplices also objected that after firing their court-appointed lawyers two months ago, Judge Duffy prohibited them from retaining famed civil rights lawyer William M. Kunstler to handle their appeals.

Judge Duffy ruled against Mr. Kunstler on grounds that he already is representing one or two defendants in a related bombing conspiracy trial next fall involving a militant Egyptian sheik and 13 others.

Although the government would like Salameh and two other convicted bombers to testify at that trial, Salameh told the court in a booming voice:

"The government wants us to testify falsely in the name of cooperation. I will not testify in that other case against anyone."

Referring to his own case, he said, "I am not going to plead for mercy. I will not beg."

Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, regarded by Salameh and the others as their spiritual leader, and 13 co-defendants are charged with conspiring not only to bomb the World Trade Center but also with plotting to blow up the United Nations building and the Lincoln and Holland commuter tunnels that link New York City with New Jersey.

Judge Duffy reserved his harshest condemnation for the second defendant, Nidal A. Ayyad, 26, a chemical engineer who helped finance the bombing and ordered chemicals and hydrogen gas for the homemade explosive device.

"You are clearly the most culpable of the defendants. You had the best breaks," Judge Duffy told him, referring to his U.S. college education.

The judge said Ayyad had violated the oath he took upon becoming a U.S. citizen "and turned your life into a total lie."

Ayyad also was convicted of sending an anonymous letter to the New York Times threatening further acts of violence unless the United States ended all assistance to Israel.

Ayyad responded defiantly to Judge Duffy: "You are only a judge. You can put me in prison for five or 10 lives. But God is more powerful than America."

When Ayyad complained that "human rights advocates" had not monitored his treatment during months in detention, Judge Duffy interjected: "Did human rights organizations monitor the people whom you killed?"

The other two defendants, Mahmoud Abouhalima, 34, and Ahmad M. Ajaj, 28, claimed that they were victims of American injustice, repeatedly invoked the name of God, and said they would rely on divine law over human law.

Abouhalima, the oldest of the defendants and pictured as "field general" of the bombing, helped construct the bomb and purchased gas for the delivery van the morning of the explosion. Ajaj was convicted of carrying bomb-making manuals into the country months before the blast.

In sentencing each to 240 years in prison, Judge Duffy said 180 years of the sentence was based on the life expectancy of the six people who died in the explosion.

He also imposed fines of $250,000 on each defendant to be used as restitution to the families of the victims.

Federal sources said they did not know if the fines ever could be collected.

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