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Four embassy bombers get life

A courtroom sketch of Judge Leonard Sand.  

By Phil Hirschkorn

NEW YORK (CNN) -- The curtain came down on the embassy bombings trial on Thursday when a federal judge sentenced four men to life in prison for attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa three years ago.

Mohamed al-'Owhali, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, Mohamed Odeh and Wadih el Hage each got life without parole for their roles in near simultaneous attacks August 7, 1998, on embassies at Kenya and Tanzania.

The sentencing marked the conclusion of the only U.S. prosecution to date involving members of al Qaeda, the militant group headed by accused terrorist Osama bin Laden. Court testimony revealed that al-'Owhali and Mohamed underwent weapons and explosives training at the group's military camps inside Afghanistan.

Bin Laden remains one of 13 fugitives in the case. Besides the four men sentenced on Thursday, another defendant, Ali Mohamed, pleaded guilty last year. Another, Mahdouh Salim, is awaiting trial. Three additional defendants are fighting extradition in England.

Susan Hirsch said the pain she feels is "indescribable."  

The life sentences "send the unmistakable message of our country that it will be relentless in its response to terrorist acts around the world," said U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White.

U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand issued the sentences at the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan where a jury convicted the four men in May for their connections to the coordinated attacks three years ago. In those attacks, 224 people died and about 4,500 were injured.

The sentencing was highlighted by the testimony of some victims who recalled their terror and loss.

"The pain and emptiness that I feel is both deeply private and truly indescribable," said Susan Hirsch, widowed by the bombings.

"These people deserve to be put away forever," said Frank Presley, who was an embassy communications officer at the Kenya embassy. "They never need to see a sunrise, a sunset. They should never be allowed to touch another living human being. They should never be able to hold their wives, their relatives, their friends."

Back-to-back bombings

Case file: The U.S. embassy bombings trial 
Most of panel voted for death, jurors say 
Embassy bombings trial revealed links to bin Laden 
Transcript of sentencing hearing: U.S. v. Osama bin Laden  FindLaw document (PDF format)

The 12-member jury had argued over whether the two men with the most direct roles in the terrorist acts -- al-'Owhali, who bombed the Nairobi, Kenya, embassy, and Mohamed, bomber of the embassy at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania -- should receive death. According to two jurors, the panel deadlocked, 9-3, on capital punishment for al-'Owhali, 24 and a Saudi, and Mohamed, 28, a Tanzanian.

Al-'Owhali was convicted of murdering 213 people, including 12 Americans, in the Kenya blast. Mohamed was convicted of murder of 11 people in the attack at Tanzania, which occurred just 10 minutes after the explosion in Kenya.

Odeh, 36, a Jordanian, was found guilty of the Kenya bombing and 213 murder counts. Odeh, who said he had no role in the bombings, was the only defendant who admitted membership in al Qaeda. His attorney said Odeh considered it an "organization to change oppressive circumstances."

The organization would only react to provocation, said his attorney, Anthony Ricco. "It is Mr. Odeh's view that the United States' support of Israel, both financially, politically and militarily (and) presence of the United States military in the holy lands of Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and the Horn of Africa, constitutes provocation," Ricco said.

Prosecutor Ken Karas had a quick response: "The attack may have been intended to attack American foreign policy," he said, "but the victims were innocent people."

El Hage, 41, a naturalized American from Lebanon, was found guilty of belonging to a worldwide conspiracy to kill Americans and destroy U.S. property, as were his three co-defendants. He received life in prison, plus additional time for perjuring himself before a grand jury investigating bin Laden's activities. El Hage's attorneys argued that their client, not convicted of any violent act, did not deserve as severe punishment as the convicted bombers.

El Hage, who said he was a devout, nonviolent activist, spent more than 20 minutes reading a treatise on Islam and religious freedom -- one of the reasons, El Hage said, that he immigrated to the United States in 1978.

"If we put aside our self-deceit, arrogance, traditions, habits, ego and prejudice, I believe we will come to find that the message of Islam is the last and final message God sent to mankind," el Hage said.

"He claims to be a citizen but he is not an American," Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald responded. "He claims to be a religious man, but he is not a true Muslim."



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