Another blow to “war on terror” as Florida jury refuses to convict men accused of terrorism

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Tahir Mahmoud

Dhu al-Qa'dah 02, 1429 2008-01-01


by Tahir Mahmoud (World, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 11, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1429)

Things are not going well for US president George Bush, not only because he is now seen as a lame-duck president or that bad news continues to pour out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the phony war on terror is not yielding results as it did immediately after 911, when frequent “orange alert” warnings kept people frightened enough to agree to whatever the government was demanding, including curtailment of civil liberties. People seen to have seem through these tricks of the government, which is widely distrusted by most Americans today.

The latest blow was delivered in Miami, Florida, on December 13, when a jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict in the trial of seven men from the poverty-stricken Liberty City area, who were accused of plotting acts of terrorism. The hung jury meant that the trial had to be declared a mistrial, despite great efforts by the presiding judge, Joan Lenard, to declare the defendants guilty; her questionable directions to the jury had even journalists shaking their heads in disbelief. The verdict came within ten days of the release of a report by the National Intelligence Estimate that was widely seen as a rebuke of Bush's war policies (see p. 12) and within two months of another high-profile trial involving the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a Muslim charity that was accused by the government of supporting “terrorism” in Palestine. After a four-year court-battle, the case was declared a mistrial in what one juror said was a case “strung together with noodle thread”.

In Miami, the seven defendants were accused of being part of an al-Qa’ida cell plotting to destroy Chicago's Sears Tower and the FBI headquarters in North Miami Beach in what then-US attorney general Alberto Gonzalez had claimed following the arrests was the dirt-poor defendants' determination to “wage a full ground war on the United States.” This was almost a repeat of the allegation made by his predecessor, John Ashcroft, who in June 2002 had interrupted a meeting in Moscow to announce to the world the arrest of a “homegrown dirty bomber”, Jose Padilla, who had plotted to explode a “radioactive bomb” that could potentially have killed millions of Americans. After spending five years in isolation and immense psychological torture, he had lost his mental balance. Padilla's conviction in August 2007 left not only civil libertarians, but also a number of psychiatrists who had examined Padilla, aghast. They were convinced that he had been tortured so badly that he had lost his mental balance and was no longer capable of understanding the charges against him or of presenting a coherent defence.

In the case of the Miami Seven, the jury dismissed all charges against one and a hung jury failed to convict the other six. The case was built on the testimony of dubious FBI informants. Defense lawyers contended that the informants and an over-zealous FBI were responsible for pushing the alleged conspiracy along. “This was all written, directed and produced by the FBI,'' defence attorney Albert Levin was quoted as saying by the Florida daily, Sun-sentinel. When the seven defendants were first arrested in June 2006, the occasion was seized upon by Bush et. al. to point to the dangers of “homegrown terrorism”–a phrase that has become popular in most Western countries since 9/11 as an excuse to target citizens with accusations of terrorism on the basis of dubious interpretations of questionable intelligence. In most cases, government informants and plants have been instrumental in pushing the alleged plots to implicate others. The Florida case was built largely on FBI surveillance-video recorded by the FBI's infiltrators and on some 12,000 telephone intercepts of conversations instigated by them.

The seven defendants, all African Americans, were construction workers. Their leader, Narseal (“Brother Naz”) Batiste (above), a 33-year-old construction contractor, provided odd jobs to the others on various sites. The other six were: Patrick Abraham, 28; Stanley Phanor, 32; Burson Augustin, 22; Rothschild Augustin, 24; Naudimar Herrera, 23; and Lyglenson Lemorin, 32. According to the Sun-sentinel: “The men, who worked odd jobs for a construction company owned by Batiste, hung out in a dilapidated warehouse in Miami's poverty-stricken Liberty City area ... During a two-month trial, prosecutors tried to prove the group belonged to an extremist religious sect that wanted to bring down the US government. The crux of their plan, prosecutors said, was to launch terrorist attacks that would cause devastation “even greater than 9-11.” Defence lawyers challenged these claims and insisted that their clients had been set up by paid informants, and had had no intention of following through with any terrorist attacks. In fact, Batiste, the group's leader, wanted to get one informant to give him $50,000 that he had been promised. He admitted he pretended to be a “terrorist” in order to lay his hands on the money. The other six had had no knowledge of what Batiste and the informants had been up to.

Judge Lenard prevented details of the informants' shady characters from being disclosed to the jurors. Writing in the Miami New Times, Bob Norman shed some light on the murky details of the life of one informant, Abbas al-Saidi, a Yemeni immigrant who had worked for the New York Police Department (NYPD), informing on drug-dealers when he was barely sixteen years old. He was charged with extorting $7,000 from one of his friends who had raped his girlfriend in return for her dropping the charges. Saidi used the money to move from Brooklyn, NY, to Miami, where he assaulted his girlfriend, Stephanie, and ended up in jail on charges of battery in November 2004. He was also charged, at least twice, with possession of marijuana, and during his testimony in the Miami trial admitted to smoking pot while participating in the Liberty City Seven investigation. Saidi travelled back and forth between the US and Yemen, where he had married another woman by whom he has a daughter. All this was unknown to Stephanie, who, when she came upon Saidi's wedding photos, was so angry that she got into a fight that landed him in jail. Unable to make bail, he contacted his former benefactors in NYPD, who arranged his bail and put him in touch with the FBI for the sting operation in Liberty City. He has been paid $40,000 for his “work” for the FBI.

Saidi was not the only unsavoury character the government used. Details about the life of a second informant, a Lebanese immigrant named Elie Assad, were also withheld from the jury by judge Lenard. Assad was flown by the FBI from Mexico to Miami and was paid $80,000 for his ‘work', but a former FBI agent, James Wedick, who was hired as an expert witness by the defence, said that Assad should not have been authorized to work on the case because he had failed a polygraph (“lie-detector”) test when working on a previous case in Chicago. Credibility (or lack thereof) of secret government informants might seem an obvious material fact, but the judge was adamant that this information be withheld from jurors. Despite this, the prosecution failed to secure a unanimous verdict.

It was certainly not for lack of trying, with not inconsiderable help from the judge. A neocon professor, one Raymond Tanter, was allowed to testify despite his long-time work at a right-wing think-tank. He testified that the defendants were dangerous terrorists who, in part because of their extreme poverty, had reached the “jihadization” stage. Tanter is a strong supporter of the Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization (MKO), which has been on the US state department list of terrorist organizations since 1997. The MKO has been involved in murder and bombing attacks in Islamic Iran and is still supported by the US army in Iraq.

What the case of the Liberty City Seven shows is the depths to which the US government and its various agencies are willing to sink in order to implicate innocent people on terror-related charges. Despite repeated failures, it appears the government does not intend to give up on this “50-year war”, as US vice president Dick Cheney described it soon after 911. A few setbacks at the hands of “ill-informed” jurors will not deter the outlaws that run America today from pursuing their agenda. They are determined to target innocents so that they can advance their hegemonic agenda to plunder the world's resources for the benefit of the economic elite that control the major multinational corporations. American officials are obviously capable of perpetrating any and every conceivable crime, and even some that are unimaginable. That is what makes them so dangerous.

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