British judge sends terror suspect to U.S.

Algerian accused in plot to bomb L.A. airport in 2000 linked to bin Laden

May 11, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - A British judge ruled yesterday that an Algerian accused of being the leader of a London-based al-Qaida cell and of plotting with Osama bin Laden to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of New Year's celebrations in 2000 should be extradited to the United States.

Judge Timothy Workman dismissed defense arguments that "unprecedented and wholly prejudicial levels of publicity" in the United States would deny a fair trial there to the suspect, Amar Makhlulif, 37, also known as Abu Doha.

He also rejected claims that U.S. and British authorities had manipulated the extradition process and that the evidence against Makhlulif from an accused co-conspirator in U.S. custody was insufficient and unreliable.

In two days of hearings last month, the court was told that Makhlulif had been identified as an associate of bin Laden, a recruiter of "holy war" fighters for camps in Afghanistan and a leader of the airport plot by Ahmed Ressam, 34, a confessed Algerian terrorist who was arrested in December 1999 as he tried to cross into the United States from Canada at Port Angeles, Wash., in a car full of explosives.

Ressam was convicted last year in the airport bombing plan and is now cooperating with federal prosecutors in al-Qaida trials and investigations in an effort to reduce his sentence.

In response to defense claims, Workman acknowledged that Ressam's sentence could fall from 137 years to 27 years because of his cooperation, but he said the effect of those negotiations on his credibility was a matter for the U.S. trial judge, not for the extradition proceeding.

As for whether evidence existed that Makhlulif intended to kill Americans, Workman said, "There is in my view ample evidence on which a jury, properly directed, could conclude that the activities and intention were directed towards murder and causing grievous bodily harm."

The judge said the British government had 15 days in which to certify his extradition to the United States but Makhlulif could appeal his decision to the High Court. A defense lawyer, Alison MacDonald, said an appeal was under consideration.

Andrew Colman, a British lawyer representing the United States, pointed to the sweeping nature of Workman's decision and said he thought the chance of a successful appeal "highly unlikely."

In a different outcome in the same court in February, Workman dismissed an extradition case against Lotfi Raissi, 27, an Algerian pilot whom the United States sought to link to the Sept. 11 terror hijackers.

Workman delivered yesterday's verdict in dispassionate, legal terminology in a courtroom that adjoins the top-security Belmarsh Prison in southeast London. The court was guarded by police officers with machine guns.

Dressed in a blue blazer and open-neck dress shirt and flanked by three guards in flak jackets, Makhlulif smiled throughout the proceeding and spoke only to confirm that he had understood an Arabic interpreter's translation of the judge's statement.

Makhlulif was arrested in February 2001 at Heathrow Airport, near London, as he waited for a flight to Saudi Arabia.

Prosecutors told the court that a search of his apartment in north London had turned up items exposing his involvement in three prime al-Qaida activities - obtaining false travel documents, providing communication between cells around the world and financing terror operations.

In addition, they said, he coordinated travel arrangements for young "holy war" recruits for camps in Afghanistan from many countries.

The court was told that Ressam had informed U.S. authorities that Makhlulif helped him plan the Los Angeles bombing plot and was responsible for providing him an escape to Algeria through London.

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