NEW YORK — Ignoring a federal judge's stern warning that he risked "making a fool" of himself, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef became his own lawyer Thursday, telling jurors he could not have participated in an alleged terrorist plot to down a dozen American-owned jumbo jets over the Pacific last year because he was secretly imprisoned at the time in Pakistan.
In his opening arguments in his terrorism trial, Yousef also denied planting a small test bomb aboard a Philippine airliner that exploded and killed a Japanese passenger in December 1994.
Federal prosecutors contend that Yousef and his two co-defendants hatched a huge and technologically sophisticated plot as a way to pressure the U.S. government to weaken its support for Israel. They charge that the plot was foiled only when a fire in Yousef's Manila apartment exposed the bomb-making effort.
But Yousef on Thursday depicted himself not as a terrorist, but as a victim of Philippine and Pakistani authorities.
"You will learn that defendant Yousef was a victim of two governments which wanted to please the United States . . . by building this case and fabricating most of the evidence," he said.
Yousef, 28, said that during the duration of the alleged plot--from November 1994 until February 1995--he was in a military prison in Pakistan.
Referring to himself in the third person, as the judge had ordered, Yousef said "he was tortured during that period of time. He was deprived from food. He was shackled in a very painful way. . . . Many of his relatives were arrested with him and they were tortured."
Yousef, wearing a conservative suit and speaking in clear English, asked the jury "to keep in mind that even though defendant Yousef is not a U.S. citizen, and doesn't speak the way you speak, that he is a person just like you. Concentrate on the evidence. If you do so, the only just verdict is 'not guilty.' "
Later, Yousef demonstrated surprising skill in cross-examining a Philippine flight attendant, who testified that she saw him aboard Flight 434 before the bomb blast. Maria Delacruz identified Yousef as the passenger who sat in the seat that later exploded. Prosecutors contend that Yousef hid the bomb in a life-jacket pouch beneath the seat and then got off the plane during a stopover before the blast.
Yousef got the flight attendant to admit that she saw the face of the man on the plane only 15 or 20 seconds, yet "now, 17 months later, you can identify the person," he said, a touch of incredulity in his voice.
U.S. District Judge Kevin Duffy reluctantly allowed Yousef to serve as his own lawyer, with defense attorney Roy Kulcsar acting in an advisory role. Yousef interrupted his cross-examination of the flight attendant several times to confer with Kulcsar.
Before permitting Yousef to represent himself, Duffy accused the defendant of trying to "manipulate the system" and warned that "you are not familiar with the rules of evidence. I strongly advise you not to represent yourself."
When Yousef insisted, the judge relented, adding "what you might be doing is making a fool of yourself. I can't be any stronger in telling you the difficulty of what you are doing."
The trial is expected to last three months. If convicted on the charges of conspiring and attempting to destroy aircraft in foreign air commerce, Yousef and his co-defendants, Abdul Hakim Murad and Wali Khan Amin Shah, each face life in prison.