Deliberations begin

May 21, 2003 at 12:00 am

The jurors seem worn out. In the course of six weeks, they have heard various versions of Islamic history, listened to 59 witnesses and viewed hundreds of exhibits. But the first terror trial to result from federal investigations since the Sept. 11 attacks is finally nearing an end.

After closing arguments, the jury began deliberating this week to decide if four Arab men conspired to provide material support to terrorists. If defendants Karim Koubriti, Ahmed Hannan, Farouk Ali-Haimoud and Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi are found guilty, they each face up to 25 years in prison. They also have been charged with possessing false ID documents.

It is impossible to know what the jury will decide.

“It just so happens …”

According to assistant U.S. attorney Richard Convertino’s closing argument, the defendants “are a dangerous group, a cell that was stopped, a cell that was caught. … These people belong in prison.”

Convertino mocked the defense’s claim that the four men were caught in a series of coincidences that put them behind bars.

“It just so happens,” said Convertino, that they were living in a Detroit apartment previously occupied by a man who was on a terrorist watch list. The government contends that the apartment was a safe house for terrorists.

“It just so happens,” he alleged, that the defendants had sketches depicting a U.S. air base in Turkey and a military hospital in Jordan.

“It just so happens” that they landed jobs at Detroit Metropolitan Airport at a company that provides meals to commercial airliners, said Convertino. The government contends that the defendants intended to poison passengers.

Convertino repeated the phrase, “It just so happens,” at least 90 times as he ticked off so-called coincidences.

“The coincidences in this case are astronomical,” said Convertino.

If the jury is to believe the defense, he said, they must also believe that “all the agents of the Joint Terrorism Task Force made this whole thing up.”

Convertino went so far as to say that the jury should acquit the defendants if they believed the claim that the government spent 30 hours with their star witness Youssef Hmimssa before taking any notes, thereby allowing him to get his story straight. Hmimssa pleaded guilty to credit card fraud and document fraud earlier this year. The Moroccan immigrant also illegally entered the country in 1994 and briefly lived with the defendants. Hmimssa testified that they are terrorists and tried to recruit him.

Convertino said that he took pages of notes regarding interviews with Hmimssa and turned the notes over to U.S. District Court Judge Gerald E. Rosen, who is presiding over the case.

“The defense wants you to believe we holed up in a room and we showed him [Hmimssa] evidence,” said Convertino. “If you believe that’s what happened, acquit them … send them in the streets.”

By press time Monday only two of the four defense attorneys had given closing arguments.

Richard Helfrick, who was low-key throughout the trial, countered by excoriating the government, which he accused of only disclosing partial evidence.

“This case is based on fear, half-truths and deception,” said Helfrick.

He said that an example of this was the testimony of James Sanders, a mentally deficient illiterate and a key prosecution witness. Sanders testified that he worked with defendants Koubriti and Hannan and that they asked for his birth certificate, Social Security card and his signature, then took him to a mosque. The government claims that the two men manipulated Sanders and other mentally vulnerable people to obtain false identification and hide their covert operation.

But Helfrick pointed out that the defendants worked at the same company with Sanders for only 10 days and were on different shifts. He accused the government of deliberately hiding this from the jury.

“You know who is using the mentally ill? The men sitting at this table,” said Helfrick, pointing at Convertino, assistant U.S. attorney Keith Corbett and two FBI agents who helped investigate the case.

Helfrick also attacked Hmimssa.

“The government spanned the globe and the only guy who they could come up with was Youssef Hmimssa. What lousy luck on their part,” said Helfrick.

He said that Hmimssa had everything to gain by pointing the finger at the defendants and cutting a deal with the government. Hmimssa had fraud charges pending against him in three states, which were consolidated into one case, allowing him to avoid consecutive sentences in three jurisdictions that could have added up to 80 years, said Helfrick. Hmimssa instead will serve 37-46 months in prison. The government can request a reduced sentence based on Hmimssa’s testimony. Rosen would have to approve the sentence reduction.

Language barrier

The jury saw a video confiscated from the defendants’ apartment that included footage of young Arab men and women at Disneyland, in Las Vegas and in New York City. The prosecution claimed that these sites were targets of attack. The prosecution alleged that the person filming a river at Disneyland said, “Here is a rising cemetery.”

The court-appointed language expert viewed the video and agreed with the prosecution’s translation of the statement.

But a defense witness offered another translation. Naima Slimani Benkoucha, who was born in Algeria and came to the United States in 1999, testified that the cameraman said, “What a lovely view.”

Benkoucha said that she watched the video “more than 100 times” and that the young men and women in it are Tunisian. Benkoucha said that North Africans — Tunisians, Algerians and Moroccans — share a dialect distinct from Middle Easterners. Benkoucha, who is a retail sales manager at a department store, also said that it was the first time that she had worked as a translator or testified in court.

Family ties

Defendant Kourbriti’s sister Mariyem Koubriti testified by phone from Morocco. Her testimony was translated from Arabic to English. Her brother appeared upset when he heard his sister’s voice.

Mariyem, 23, is a year younger than her brother and said that they are very close.

She also testified that her family is Muslim, but she has never been to a mosque and that her brother has attended only a couple times. The government claims that Koubriti and the other defendants are Islamic fundamentalists.

Their mother is a high school teacher and their father a principal, said Mariyem, who has a degree in French law. Her brother finished high school, but only attended one year of college. She said that he did not go to class, but instead hung out in a coffee shop with friends, smoked hashish and drank.

Mariyem testified that her brother was able to come to the United States because she applied for a visa for him. A limited number of Moroccans can leave the country each year and are selected by lottery.

Mariyem said Koubriti had never traveled outside of Morocco and dreamed of touring Europe, but was pleased to be able to visit America. The siblings spoke weekly after Koubriti’s arrival in the United States in 2001.

Defense attorney Jim Gerometta showed photos of Koubriti’s family on a video screen. One photo was of Koubriti and his sister in bathing suits at the beach in Morocco. Other photos showed Koubriti at his grandmother’s birthday party and at a coffeehouse with friends.

The defense likely showed the photos to bolster its claim that Koubriti and his family are not religious zealots. They were not dressed in traditional Muslim attire in the photos.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]