Jury given two views of Padilla

Trial opens in Miami for men accused of supporting al-Qaida

May 15, 2007|By McClatchy-Tribune

MIAMI -- As the curtain opened yesterday in the nation's biggest terrorism trial, a dozen jurors heard wildly different accounts about whether Jose Padilla and two others were supporters of al-Qaida or of freedom fighters for persecuted Muslims abroad.

A federal prosecutor portrayed the three as key members of a South Florida-based terrorist cell that plotted to promote "violent jihad" through Islamic newsletters, phony charities and fundamentalist recruits for terrorist groups stationed in Bosnia, Chechnya and other countries.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Frazier urged jurors not to be fooled about whom they ultimately worked for - al-Qaida, which is waging a global war against the United States and its allies.

"The South Florida support cell was dedicated to helping the al-Qaida organization and its worldwide network of extremists," Frazier told jurors in the packed federal courtroom in Miami.

The team of defense lawyers strongly accused prosecutors of distorting the recent history of Muslim struggles overseas.

"The government is really trying to put al-Qaida on trial in this courtroom, and it has nothing to do with this case," said attorney Jeanne Baker, who represents Adham Amin Hassoun, the alleged ringleader.

Hassoun, 45, a Sunrise, Fla., computer programmer; Kifah Wael Jayyousi, 45, a Detroit school administrator; and Padilla, 36, a one-time Chicago gang member who once lived in Broward County, Fla., are on trial on charges of conspiring to "murder, kidnap and maim" people overseas and to provide "material support" for terrorist activity between 1993 and 2001.

The case is expected to last about three months.

If convicted, each defendant faces up to life in prison.

The high-profile case goes to trial as the Bush administration is under siege for the Iraq war, the Justice Department's firing of eight U.S. attorneys and its overall mixed record in terrorism prosecutions.

The trial is being conducted under heavy security. Federal marshals have been brought in from around the country to help protect the courthouse, and a bomb-sniffing dog was outside the courtroom yesterday.

The government's case - which attained great notoriety because Padilla had previously been held without charges by the U.S. military for more than three years - will pivot on whether jurors believe Hassoun and Jayyousi ran the alleged cell and sent Padilla to Afghanistan to train with al-Qaida to fight overseas.

Anthony Natale, Padilla's attorney, said the case was the product of "the politics of fear."

Natale said Padilla wanted to become an imam - an Islamic religious leader - and asked him to stand for the jury to see.

"He's a young man who has been wrongly accused," he said.

The prosecution plans to call a CIA officer to testify about Padilla's alleged al-Qaida application and introduce 100 classified wiretapped phone conversations between Hassoun and other suspected conspirators.

Yesterday, Frazier hammered on the cell's alleged connections to al-Qaida, without once mentioning it was the organization behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He steered clear, however, of implicating the trio in those assaults.

"We will prove that Jose Padilla became an al-Qaida trainee who provided the ultimate support - himself," Frazier said, stressing that the government has Padilla's original "mujahedeen data form."

Frazier said Padilla, a U.S. citizen, received training in weaponry, explosives and communications in Afghanistan.

"We will also show that it was incredibly rare for an American to join an al-Qaida training camp," he said.

The team of prosecutors also plans to call a convicted terrorist in a Buffalo, N.Y.-area case - Yahya Goba - who attended the same al-Qaida training camp as Padilla, Frazier said.

Lawyers for Hassoun provided a starkly different account of their client's conduct.

They said Hassoun, along with Jayyousi, was passionate about Muslim causes - in the mid-1990s, they rallied behind Muslims who were being slaughtered in Bosnia, Chechnya and Kosovo as they attempted to break away and form their own countries.

Their clients' only goal, the lawyers said, was to support fighters committed to holy war, which meant providing relief for Muslims facing "genocide."

One of Hassoun's lawyers, Kenneth Swartz, lectured jurors about the persecution of Muslims. "The case is about history," he said, "but it is not about the history the government is trying to rewrite or distort."

The trial resumes this morning in U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke's courtroom, with prosecutors calling their first witness.

The New York Times contributed to this article.

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