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Defendant outburst disrupts terrorism trial

courtroom
Haouari, left, reacted angrily during testimony from Meskini, right, in the millennium bomb plot trial  


By Phil Hirschkorn
CNN Producer

NEW YORK (CNN) -- A man accused in a plot to bomb the Los Angeles airport during the millennium celebrations collapsed in court Friday after angrily banging his head on a table.

The testimony that provoked defendant Mokhtar Haouari's reaction focused on his religious beliefs and his reaction to the twin 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa.

Haouari and the jury had been listening to government witness Abdel Ghani Meskini describe the two men's shared view that any nations that interfere with Muslim law are enemies, including Russia for its actions in Chechnya and the United States for opposing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Haouari, 32, and Meskini, 33, are Algerians and former schoolmates who immigrated to Canada in the mid-1990s. Prosecutors in the United States, Canada, and France say both men were part of an Islamic militant terrorist cell based in Montreal.

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Meskini testified that in the summer of 1998, he tried to go to "training camps in Afghanistan and after that to go perform jihad." At the camps, Meskini said he would have learned "how to use weapons and explosives." But Meskini said his plans were thwarted by the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people and injured more than 4,500 others.

"Things got too tight," Meskini said. Their contact in the Pakistan embassy could not come through with a visa. Pakistan is the gateway to Afghanistan.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robin Baker asked Meskini if Haouari had expressed an opinion about the embassy bombings.

"When I heard about the bombings, I said, you know, 'what is this?' I don't understand, you know, what the two embassies have to do with anything, with jihad," Meskini testified.

"He [Haouari] said, 'What about Iraq?'"

At that moment, Haouari, seated at the defense table and listening to a translation through headphones, began stomping his feet and banging his head with fists. Haouari then banged his fists several times on the table, and finally butted his forehead on the table.

Haouari slumped in his chair and appeared to be unconscious, though he was not. He was breathing but did not respond to his attorney or U.S. marshals.

U.S. District Court Judge John Keenan asked the jury to leave the courtroom, called for the jail doctor and asked his clerk to call 911. It took 15 minutes for emergency medical personnel to arrive. They treated and removed Haouari, who by then was communicating, in a wheelchair. He had a bruise on his forehead.

"Mr. Haouari is in good condition. There is nothing permanently wrong with him," Keenan told jurors when they were brought back.

"If his reaction to this testimony or this subject is apt to be as emotional as it just was," Keenan told defense attorney Dan Ollen, "tell him, he should just remain as quiet and passive as possible."

Instead of resuming Friday afternoon, the trial was adjourned until Monday, but not before Keenan lectured Haouari outside the presence of the jury.

"This is not a game and this is not a joke and you are not gonna get away from this trial by not behaving yourself," Keenan said. He told the defendant if he acted out again, he would be forced to watch the proceedings on a video monitor in a jail cell, or even bound and gagged in court.

Haoauri apoliogized for his outburst.

The U.S. treatment of Iraq through economic sanctions and air strikes since the Gulf War has been a concern of Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the embassy bombings, and of Mohamd al-'Owhali, one of the men convicted last month for carrying out the Kenya attack. Claims of responsibility for the bombings demanded an end to "campaigns of annihilation and humiliation that are being waged by the United States against a number of Islamic peoples."

Haouari and Meskini were co-defendants until Meskini pleaded guilty in March and agreed to cooperate with the government. Meskini previously testified in the trial of Ahmed Ressam, who was convicted in April of terrorism charges related to the bomb plot, which was discovered when U.S. border guards in Washington state caught Ressam on December 14, 1999, driving across the Canadian border with a trunkful of explosive materials and timing devices.

The target was not revealed in Ressam's trial, but prosecutor Joseph Bianco said in his opening statement on Wednesday that when Ressam testifies against Haouari, he will admit the target was the Los Angeles airport.

Haouari is accused of providing material support to the terrorism plot. Bianco told the jury evidence will show he sent Ressam $3,000 and a fake Canadian driver's license before his ill-fated trip. Haouari allegedly sent Meskini to Seattle to help Ressam.

Haouari is also accused of bank fraud, credit card fraud, and document fraud.

Before the subject turned to jihad, Meskini described a series of credit card scams he had collaborated on with Haouari. In coded telephone calls, Meskini said they called credit cards "the stuff," Mastercard was called "Mother Theresa," Visa was called "Victor Hugo."

The scams, which Meskini ran from his Brooklyn apartment, netted $30,000 in late 1999 alone, he said.

Meskini said he had religious qualms about perpetrating fraud and discussed the question with Haouari, who assured him it was all right if the victims were non-believers in Islam.

"The only thing you can do is take from them," the witness recalled Haouari saying. "You don't have to worry about it."


Greta@LAW





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