Seditious-conspiracy case delivered to jury Sheik, 9 others accused of terrorist plots in N.Y.

September 24, 1995|By Joseph P. Fried | Joseph P. Fried,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- After more than 200 witnesses and a mind-fogging flood of secretly recorded conversations, a jury received final instructions yesterday for deliberating the fate of 10 men charged in a terror-bombing and assassination conspiracy.

Near the end of an eight-month trial in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, the jury is to decide not only whether Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, a prominent Muslim cleric, and his nine co-defendants plotted both individual killings and mass murder, but also whether the purported crimes were part of a four-year conspiracy fueled by fundamentalist fanaticism.

The prosecution says it was all one overarching seditious plot: the killing of a rabbi in 1990; the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993; plots to blow up the United Nations headquarters, the Hudson River commuter tunnels and other sites; and a scheme to assassinate Egypt's president.

In giving the jury several hours of legal instructions, Judge Michael B. Mukasey took note of the Islamic fundamentalist cause that the prosecutors said had inspired the defendants.

"Although the government may introduce proof of religious belief and argue motive from that," he said, "you may not find that a defendant committed any offense charged in this indictment merely because you may disagree with or dislike his religious beliefs."

Lawyers for the defendants have argued that separate crimes and charges were falsely linked to form the broad seditious-conspiracy count.

The count appeared to strengthen the case, for it presented a frightening vision of a "jihad army" -- a prosecutor's description using the Arabic word often translated as "holy war" -- that was embarked on a murderous march in the New York area.

This was combined with secretly recorded conversations to provide compelling evidence against at least some of the defendants.

But the prosecution case had significant problems, the biggest of which appeared to be that the government's prime witness was a man who had abundantly lied in the past about his background and activities.

The defense vividly portrayed the witness, a former Egyptian army officer named Emad A. Salem, as an accomplished confidence man and agent provocateur.

"They let a monster loose," defense lawyer John H. Jacobs said in closing arguments.

Prosecutors derided the notion that the defendants had been manipulated or misled into incriminating situations that were secretly videotaped.

The prosecution said the defendants had been hoping to intimidate the United States into dropping its support for Israel and Egypt.

"Terrorism in the name of jihad made itself clear on Feb. 26, 1993, when a bomb ripped through the World Trade Center," declared Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald. None of the defendants is accused in that attack. But the government has called them "co-conspirators" of the four men convicted in the bombing last year and the two awaiting trial.

Also part of the conspiracy, the prosecution held, was the 1990 murder in Manhattan of Rabbi Meir Kahane, a Jewish militant.

In addition, the seditious-conspiracy charge includes a purported plan to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt when he visited the United States in 1993.

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