Attorneys lay out embassy bombing cases
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Promising a "long, complicated and chilling" story, a federal prosecutor laid out the case Monday against four men accused of conspiracy in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, tying the suspects to a terrorism plot aimed at Americans worldwide.
The trial, in a heavily guarded courtroom with U.S. District Judge Leonard B. Sand presiding, began with opening statements from prosecutors who stuck to the story largely laid out in their 308-count indictment against the defendants. Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Butler said the men were acting at the behest of Saudi exile Osama bin Laden.
"All four defendants entered into an illegal agreement with Osama bin Laden and others to kill Americans anywhere in the world they could be found," Butler said. "They each helped the best way they could. And in the end, 224 men, women and children from Kenya, Tanzania, and Americans lost their lives."
The August 1998 bombings, which occurred minutes apart, also injured thousands of people.
An attorney for one of the two defendants facing the death penalty, Kahlfan Khamis Mohamed, conceded his client had a role in the bombings, but said he was a "pawn." An attorney for the other, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali, did not speak at all.
Attorneys for the other two defendants -- Mohamed Sadeek Odeh and Wadih el Hage -- said their clients had ties to bin Laden, but that they had no role in violent activity.
The first prosecution witness is scheduled to testify when court resumes at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Butler described the scene the day of the bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya:
"It's business as usual at the American embassy, which means busy," Butler told the court. "Then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed."
Butler said a truck bomb in the rear parking lot shattered the embassy and adjacent buildings when it exploded, killing 213 people, including 12 Americans.
Minutes later, "the horror repeated itself," Butler said, when another truck bomb exploded in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 11 people.
Al-'Owhali, 24, a Saudi, is accused of participating in the Kenya bombing. Butler said al-'Owhali rode in the bomb truck, prepared for a suicide mission, but jumped out at the last minute.
"Mohamed al-'Owhali did not just confess; he bragged, he boasted," Butler said.
Fred Cohn, attorney for al-'Owhali, declined to make an opening statement, the only defense attorney to do so.
Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, a 27-year-old Tanzanian, rode in the bomb truck in the Tanzanian attack, Butler said. He said Mohamed rented the Dar es Salaam house where the bomb was built, renting a car to transport bomb-making materials and grinding the TNT used to build the bomb.
Mohamed's attorney, Jeremy Schneider, conceded his client was an accomplice in the attack, but portrayed his role as minimal.
"He was a gopher," Schneider said. "He was issued orders by the higher-ups, the leaders."
Schneider said Mohamed has never met bin Laden, talked to him or heard him speak.
"If he bumped into him on the street in Tanzania in 1998, he wouldn't have known who he was," Schneider said.
Schneider said Mohamed was not a member of al Qaeda, bin Laden's network, and was not familiar with his fatwahs -- religious declarations to kill Americans.
At times, it seemed that Schneider was arguing for leniency from the jury, and the judge twice interrupted him to tell the jury that questions of punishment would be answered only after a verdict.
Butler also outlined the case against Odeh and el Hage, both of whom could face life in prison if convicted. Odeh, a 35-year-old Jordanian, is accused of participating in the Kenya bombing and el Hage, 40, a naturalized American from Lebanon, is accused of organizing the Kenyan terrorist cell, but not of direct participation in the bombings.
Butler accused Odeh of supporting the terrorist operation by establishing a fishing business in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombassa.
Odeh's attorney, Anthony Ricco, said his client has been a member of al Qaeda only because of religious devotion.
"He joined al Qaeda and agreed to follow bin Laden only in acts deemed to be Islamically correct," Ricco said, adding that his beliefs preclude suicide or killing innocents.
Ricco described Odeh as living a simple life in a thatched hut with his wife and child in a small Kenyan village.
"Mohamed Odeh has no reason to kill Kenyans. He's married to a Kenyan. His children are Kenyan. His neighbors are Kenyan," Ricco said.
Butler called el Hage "a trusted associate of bin Laden," who carried out his order to militarize his Kenyan terrorist cell in 1997. The prosecutor said el Hage, who alone among the defendants faces perjury charges, lied to investigators about his relationship with bin Laden and Odeh, whom he denied knowing.
El Hage's attorney, Sam Schmidt, said his client was a bin Laden associate in the early 1990s in Sudan, but said he had nothing to do with any conspiracy to kill Americans.
Schmidt said el Hage worked for a humanitarian relief group and sold gems during his time in Kenya.
"While he was in Kenya, Wadih el Hage had nothing to do with a violent conspiracy or violent conduct against United States interests," Schmidt said.
Members of five U.S families who lost relatives in the Kenya bombing sat in the second row of the court gallery, directly behind the defendants.
"It was emotional for us, as it would be for any family member," said Sue Bartley, whose husband, Julian Bartley, the U.S. consul general in Kenya, and son, Jay, a college student, died in the Nairobi blast. "We were prepared."
"This is a marvelous step in the pursuit of justice," said Robert Kirk, whose wife Arlene, a military accountant, died in the bombing. "I caught myself staring at those individuals wondering why and how they could have contemplated such a horrible act."
The jury -- which took a month to select -- is not being sequestered, in his welcoming remarks, Sand told the jurors that "great pains were taken in your selection" and urged them to ignore media reports on the case.
The trial could last until the end of the year.
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