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Defense presents alleged terrorist as businessman

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Attorneys for Wadih el Hage presented evidence he was too busy with legitimate business activities to be engaged in a violent conspiracy against Americans -- the central point of their defense.

The conspiracy allegedly included the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and injured more than 4,500 people.

Defense attorneys Wednesday spent several hours playing recordings or reading transcripts of wiretapped telephone calls from el Hage's home in Nairobi, Kenya.

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The United States began wiretapping el Hage's home in July 1996, suspecting him of running a Kenyan cell for Saudi exile and accused terrorist Osama bin Laden, who was then already under federal investigation. In the early 1990s el Hage worked for bin Laden companies in Sudan.

Federal prosecutors charge that bin Laden founded an Islamic militant group, al Qaeda, that plotted during the past decade to attack U.S. armed forces and kill Americans civilians.

El Hage, 40, a naturalized American, is one of four men who have been standing trial since January in the alleged conspiracy.

His three co-defendants are accused of direct roles in the embassy bombings -- Mohamed al-'Owhali, 24, a Saudi; Mohamed Odeh, 36, a Jordanian; and Khalfan Mohamed, 27, a Tanzanian.

The calls presented to the jury Wednesday revealed el Hage discussing imports of foodstuffs, from sugar to salt, and of products as varied as gasoline and ostriches.

His lawyers also read from el Hage's personal papers seized by government agents.

The notebooks described transactions for sesame, hibiscus, sunflower presses and welding machines, for shipping bananas from Khartoum to Moscow, and for acquiring asphalt from Albania or hazelnuts from Tajikistan.

El Hage's attorneys, who previously showed the jury evidence, and called a witness to testify that el Hage was involved in the gemstone business, apparently tested the court's patience on Wednesday.

U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Sand admonished attorney Sam Schmidt several times to speed things up.

"I am trying to show Mr. el Hage was engaged in bona fide commercial transactions with members of al Qaeda and they [the government] has put a distorted picture on ambiguous conversations," Schmidt told the court.

Prosecutors, in their case, read a pile of el Hage wiretap transcripts, sometimes in alleged code words, which they say prove he communicated with bin Laden and his associates to facilitate the terror conspiracy.

Schmidt told the court he would need two more hours Thursday to finish reviewing documents.

"That doesn't require you lose the attention of the jury, that you bog down the jury in minutiae," Sand said.

El Hage returned to the United States with his U.S.-born wife, April, and their six children in September 1997 -- just one month after FBI agents and Kenyan police raided his Nairobi home and confiscated his Macintosh laptop computer and dozens of computer discs. The downloaded files would yield key documents of prosecution evidence.

The jury heard several taped telephone calls in which el Hage calmly but persistently asked FBI agents in New York when he could "get his stuff" back. An agent eventually told el Hage he could retrieve his belongings back in the United States.

"Let us know what flight you are going to come on," an agent named Joseph told Mrs. el Hage in another call.

"Ok, what are you doing to do, grab us?" she responded, laughing.

"No," Joseph said.

"That's just a joke," April said.

In fact, el Hage was summoned to testify before a grand jury upon his return. His testimony that day, and during an appearance a year later, would prompt the perjury charges he now faces in the embassy bombings trial.

And he never got his computer back.

In the wiretapped call between the FBI and Mrs. el Hage, she said the raid on their Kenyan home was "an excuse to go back" to the United States. "It's my country, you know," Mrs. el Hage said.

"Well, we all love our country. I am sure you do too," said the FBI agent.

"Yes, we do, we do," said Mrs. el Hage.

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U.S. State Department
 •  International Information Programs:
 •  Counterterrorism
 •  Links to United States Embassies and Consulates Worldwide
Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1999
FBI Websites Document Evidence Against Bin Laden
Ussamah Bin Laden
US District Court, Southern District of New York
Terrorism Research Center

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