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Bomb Plot Defendant 'a Punk' but No Terrorist, Lawyer Says

July 12, 2001|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — A Montreal shopkeeper was unwittingly on the fringes of a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport and never intended to help terrorists attack the United States, a defense lawyer argued in federal court Wednesday.

Mokhtar Haouari, 32, is not the terrorist the government has portrayed him to be, his lawyer, Daniel Ollen, said in an hourlong, impassioned closing statement in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

At worst, Haouari was a petty thief, a con man, a liar and "a punk," Ollen said as Haouari listened impassively.

Ollen told jurors the federal government's case accusing Haouari of knowingly conspiring in a planned act of terrorism lacked evidence and was "an insult to your intelligence."

"If this were the story line of a movie, you would walk out," Ollen said. "If it were the plot of a novel, you would throw it in the trash."

In more measured tones, two federal prosecutors spent three hours summarizing the case they presented during the last two weeks.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Robin Baker said Haouari knew that he was helping alleged accomplice Ahmed Ressam attempt to carry out an act of violence just before New Year's Day 2000. Haouari was arrested less than a month after Ressam, 34, was caught at the U.S.-Canada border in mid-December 1999 with a car trunk full of explosives.

Prosecutors said Haouari played a key role in Ressam's plot to bomb LAX, providing him with $3,000 in cash and a fake Canadian driver's license found on Ressam when he was arrested. Haouari also recruited a third Algerian man into the plot, sending Abdelghani Meskini to Seattle to help Ressam, and planned to get the would-be bomber an Algerian passport to help in his escape, prosecutors said.

Haouari may not have known about Ressam's specific plans to target the airport, but he knew enough about Ressam's murderous intentions to be held accountable as a conspirator in a terrorist act, prosecutors said.

"You've learned in this trial that there are people in the world who believe that the United States is the enemy who deserves to be punished," Baker told jurors. "You've learned that Mokhtar Haouari not only shared that belief but acted on it."

Both Ressam and Meskini testified against Haouari.

But Ollen cautioned jurors about Ressam and Meskini, saying they only agreed to testify against Haouari as a way of shaving years or even decades off their own sentences and had good reason to make things up about Haouari to "save their own skins."

Ressam was convicted April 6 after a jury trial in Los Angeles and faces as much as 140 years in prison. Meskini entered into a plea agreement in March just as his trial in New York was to begin.

Ollen said jurors should be particularly skeptical of Ressam's claims that Haouari was a key figure in the plot, given Ressam's own admissions that he had many other friends in Montreal who were experienced warriors of "jihad," or holy war.

Ressam also admitted on the witness stand that he was connected to a terrorist network that authorities have linked to suspected Islamic militant Osama bin Laden and that he spent most of 1998 in a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan learning how to wage guerrilla warfare against the United States.

Haouari faces as many as 80 years in prison if convicted on one count of conspiring to provide material support and resources to Ressam and a terrorist organization, a second count of providing that support and assistance and four separate fraud charges. An additional fraud count was dropped Tuesday without explanation.

The 12-member jury is expected to begin deliberations today.

In Washington, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, in a speech Wednesday to the National Governors Assn., said authorities must find new and better tools to thwart terrorists. The federal government is devoting new resources to finding quick and effective ways of responding to terrorist attacks if and when they occur, he said.

*

Times staff writer Eric Lichtblau contributed to this story.

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