The largest terrorism trial in U.S. history starts in earnest this week with opening statements and a warning from the judge that religion is not on trial.
Prosecutors will try to show that Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and 11 other Muslims planned a “war of urban terrorism” in America that could have killed thousands of people.
Prosecutors will argue they plotted to blow up the World Trade Center, the United Nations, the FBI’s New York headquarters, two tunnels and a bridge, and to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other politicians and judges.
After 13 lawyers deliver their opening statements beginning Monday, U.S. District Judge Michael Mukasey will instruct the jury on seditious conspiracy, the rarely used Civil War-era charge used in the case. The trial’s magnitude can be measured both by the number of defendants and the scope of what they allegedly plotted as well as the damage already wrought.
Mukasey told lawyers last week he would tell the jury the defendants are not accused of trying to overthrow the U.S. government, only of trying to wage a war against it. He also will advise them that if someone breaks laws, “the fact that it is undertaken in the name of religion is no defense whatsoever.”
“There is no religion on trial here,” the judge said in a preliminary draft of his jury instructions.
Lawyers for Abdel-Rahman, the 56-year-old blind cleric alleged to have headed the conspiracy, charge that he’s being prosecuted for his beliefs. He could get life in prison.
The alleged plot’s motive, prosecutors say, was to punish the United States for supporting Israel and Egypt and to weaken the nation’s influence.