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Defendant may testify as bombings trial wraps up

Wadih El Hage
El Hage, riding an ostrich in Kenya in July 1997, sold the birds in one of his many businesses.  

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Closing arguments will be heard next week in the trial of four men accused of participating in a terrorist conspiracy to kill Americans worldwide, a conspiracy the U.S. government alleges included the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Attorneys for the four defendants are expected to rest their case Monday after only two weeks of defense testimony. Prosecutors from the U.S. attorney's office took nine weeks to present their evidence and more than 90 witnesses to the jury.

Wadih el Hage, in a surprise move, signaled he may take the stand Monday in his own defense. His attorney, Sam Schmidt, told the court Thursday that el Hage wished to testify, but Schmidt said he would not know for sure whether that would happen until Saturday.

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Shattered Diplomacy: The U.S. Embassy Bombings Trial
An in-depth special report on the trial of four men charged with the embassy bombings
Trial reports | Timeline | Key Figures
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Army helicopter pilot's testimony about Somalia battle
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tease Images from the U.S. embassy bombing in Tanzania
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El Hage, 40, a naturalized American from Lebanon, is not accused of a direct role in the embassy bombings, but he is alleged to have facilitated the East African cell that carried out the attacks. U.S. agents wiretapped his Nairobi, Kenya, home from mid-1996 until he returned to the United States in late 1997.

The wiretaps played a major role in the trial, with defense attorneys playing tapes of phone calls to the jury showing el Hage busy dealing in foodstuffs such as sugar, salt and sunflowers and in products as varied as gems, gasoline and ostriches -- all legitimate business activities that had nothing to do with planning violent acts.

Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali, 24, from Saudi Arabia, and Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, 36, from Jordan, allegedly participated in the August 7, 1998, attack on the embassy in Kenya in which 213 people died, including 12 Americans, and more than 4,500 people were injured.

Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, 27, from Tanzania, allegedly participated in the attack the same day in Tanzania in which 11 people died and more than 85 were injured.

The defendants were allegedly following orders of Osama bin Laden, the multimillionaire Saudi expatriate based in Afghanistan. Bin Laden leads an Islamic militant group, al Qaeda, which the U.S. government blames for the embassy bombings and suspects in other violent acts aimed at Americans during the past decade.

Government attorneys expect to spend two and a half days on their closing arguments, most likely next Tuesday through Thursday. Each defense team predicts it will need about half a day for closing arguments.

U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand's instructions to the jury are likely to occur during the week of May 7, followed by jury deliberations. The jury will not be sequestered.

The judge and the trial attorneys are still revising the final list of charges the jury will consider, simplifying what started the trial as a 308-count indictment.

The indictment includes five broad terror conspiracy counts, 224 murder counts -- one for each bomb victim -- and more than a dozen perjury counts against el Hage.

On Thursday, prosecutors dropped the allegation that al Qaeda was directly to blame for the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers in an October 1993 battle in Mogadishu, Somalia -- the only lethal overt act alleged in the conspiracy before the embassy bombings.

The government still maintains al Qaeda trained Somalis in military skills such as firing rocket-propelled grenades at helicopters like the U.S. Black Hawks shot down during the Mogadishu battle.

If convicted on the terror conspiracy charges, el Hage and Odeh could be sentenced to a maximum of life in prison without parole.

Al-'Owhali and Mohamed could be sentenced to death. The jury would sit through a shorter, second trial -- a penalty phase -- to decide whether capital punishment would be imposed.

Sand ruled Wednesday there will be separate death penalty phases, if needed, with al-'Owhali going first.

For the first time, Sand also admonished jurors to avoid reading or watching stories about the impending execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, scheduled for May 16, when the jury is likely to be deliberating the case.



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RELATED SITES:
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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