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U.S.: Verdicts Mark First Convictions Against Bin Laden Group

  • Robert McMahon

The guilty verdict against four men implicated in a plot to murder American citizens marks the first U.S. convictions for crimes connected to alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden. Legal experts say the convictions followed a well-crafted case that indicates a growing sophistication in prosecuting terrorists. RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon reports from New York.

New York, 30 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Four followers of Osama bin Laden have been convicted of conspiring to murder U.S. citizens in a case legal experts say involved a painstaking approach to prosecuting terrorism.

A federal jury in New York found yesterday (29 May) that the four men were involved in plotting the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

The verdicts came after U.S. prosecutors presented more than 1,700 pieces of evidence to the jury over a three-month period. Some 100 witnesses were also called, including two defectors from what U.S. authorities have described as a terrorist network run by bin Laden and known as al Qaeda.

Prosecutor Mary Jo White hailed the verdicts as a victory for international justice: "Today's guilty verdicts are a triumph for world justice and for world unity in combating international terrorism."

Relatives of the victims welcomed the verdicts. A daughter and sister of two of the Americans killed in the bombing in Kenya, Edith Bartley, told reporters that the grieving continues three years after the incident.

"Today is one of bittersweetness. While the law was on our side today, we know the verdicts do not minimize the loss or the grief that our family, or other families -- [whether] Kenyan, Tanzanians, and Americans -- suffer even to [this] day. And we hope that the law will continue to be on our side."

All four suspects found guilty are expected to appeal the verdicts. They are Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-Owhali of Saudi Arabia, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed of Tanzania, Wadih El-Hage -- a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Lebanon -- and Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, a Palestinian born in Jordan.

Al-Owhali and Mohamed will face either the death penalty or life in prison. El-Hage and Odeh could face life in prison.

The attorneys for Odeh, Anthony Ricco and Edward Wilford, told reporters that the evidence was not sufficient to convict their client. Wilford indicated that the emotions of the case had influenced the jury.

"It wasn't a matter of too much evidence. It was a matter of what Mr. Ricco said from the beginning, an emotional thing that we couldn't overcome, an emotional hype that we couldn't overcome." But some legal experts interviewed by RFE/RL said the jury took its job seriously, carefully considering the evidence for 12 days before delivering the verdict.

Stephen Gillers is vice dean of the New York University Law School. Gillers says the U.S. government's prosecution team built a strong case by combining sophisticated scientific methods, which established how the bombing was carried out, with testimony from key members of the alleged conspiracy.

Those witnesses were Jamal Ahmed Fadl, of Sudan, and L'Houssaine Kherchtou, of Morocco. Both pleaded guilty to terrorism charges as part of arrangements that brought them to the United States and into the federal witness protection program.

Gillers says the two witnesses' testimony alone could have been seen as suspect because of their own guilt. But combined with material from ballistic tests, chemical analysis, and eyewitnesses, it amounted to an effective body of evidence.

"I think the government in a case like this has to put its evidence together brick by brick, item by item and, as much as possible, to prove facts two or three times over to avoid efforts by the defense -- which is what the defense should do -- to challenge the credibility of the government's proof."

In the United States, the law of conspiracy gives prosecutors the right to use evidence against one conspirator, even though the statements or acts that formed the basis of evidence were made by other conspirators. Gillers says he expects U.S. prosecutors to use this powerful weapon in future such cases.

In the U.S. embassy bombings case, 22 men have been charged overall. Six of the suspects are in custody. Another 12 suspects, including bin Laden, remain at large.

Bin Laden is in Afghanistan, where leaders of the ruling Taliban movement refuse to hand him over. He is one of the most-wanted fugitives in the United States and is considered a menace in many other countries as well. The UN Security Council earlier this year toughened sanctions against the Taliban to force the handover of bin Laden. The council vote on sanctions received the rare combined support of the United States, Russia, and China.

Ruth Wedgwood is an expert in international law at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, and previously worked as a U.S. prosecutor in New York. She says yesterday's verdict does not make it easier for U.S. officials to apprehend bin Laden in the short term, but does show some vulnerability in his organization.

"Despite the strength of bin Laden's infrastructure, it's possible to crack the network, even though it's very hard to get human intelligence and put people into the network directly."

Wedgwood says that despite its recent publicized troubles, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has become increasingly effective at prosecuting terrorism cases during the last 25 years. She says the key elements are a swift response to terrorist incidents -- such as gathering evidence shortly after the bombings in Africa -- and patience in putting together a case. Such work involves various tasks like piecing together papers used to create identities, assembling safehouses, and using electronic surveillance.

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