NEW YORK — In an emotion-charged courtroom not far from the wreckage of the World Trade Center, a federal judge Thursday sentenced four followers of Islamic militant Osama bin Laden to life in prison in the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa that killed 224 people.
The almost simultaneous attacks in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Aug. 7, 1998, were part of what prosecutors said was a worldwide plot to murder Americans wherever they could be found.
Eighteen others have been indicted in the continuing investigation, including Bin Laden and a dozen more fugitives.
U.S. marshals carrying shotguns and automatic weapons ringed the courthouse in lower Manhattan during the proceedings, which carried additional emotional impact in the wake of the Sept. 11 destruction of the trade center--an attack that the United States asserts was also orchestrated by Bin Laden.
"I lost my wife, the love of my life and the mother of my daughters," Howard Kavaler, who was a foreign service officer in Nairobi, told the court. "The clouds of dust, the dangling wires, the muffled cries for help are still in my mind. The carnage of Sept. 11 has only exacerbated those memories."
Judge Leonard B. Sand imposed identical sentences for Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, a 28-year-old Tanzanian; Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali, 24, of Saudi Arabia; Wadih El-Hage, 41, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Lebanon who lived in Arlington, Texas, and Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, 36, a citizen of Jordan.
Sand also ordered each of the men to pay $33 million in restitution, perhaps, he suggested, out of terrorist assets frozen by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
U.S. Atty. Mary Jo White, whose office prosecuted the case, called the sentences "lines in the sand in the fight against terrorism."
The sentences of life in prison without parole were expected after the jury declined to impose the death penalty on two of the defendants. Jurors said execution could make them martyrs, or that a lethal injection was too humane a way for them to die for their crimes.
Addressing the court through an interpreter, Odeh condemned missile strikes ordered by President Clinton in response to the embassy bombings. He claimed that "dozens of civilians" who were killed or injured by the missile attacks in Afghanistan have "nobody here [in court] to represent them at this time."
Sand replied that Odeh was trying to "deflect the enormity" of his own acts. The judge pointed out what appeared to him a paradox: that while Odeh suggested his values condemned the killing of innocent people, the crimes of which he was found guilty resulted in "the killing of innocents."
In remarks that angered prosecutors, El-Hage, who worked as Bin Laden's personal assistant while Bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization was based in Sudan, proclaimed his innocence and his opposition to "the killing of noncombatants."
He was not charged as a direct participant in the embassy attacks, but pictured by government lawyers as a "facilitator" who performed important logistical tasks for Al Qaeda, and became a leader of its East Africa cell.
El-Hage told the court that the African bombings were "extreme and not in accordance with the beliefs that I learned."
"The killing of noncombatants is radical, extreme and cannot be tolerated by any religion, principles, beliefs or values," he added.
In a statement he read aloud, El-Hage, who was found guilty of perjury before two grand juries, condemned the United Nations embargo against Iraq and "unconditional" U.S. support for Israel "that is killing innocent Palestinians."
El-Hage's remarks prompted Assistant U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald, who played a key role in presenting the government's case, to say that the government had asked for El-Hage's cooperation after telling the defendant it knew about his relationship with Al Qaeda and that he had refused and lied to grand juries.
Fitzgerald said El-Hage had "no shame, no conscience" and an "intent to kill."
"He betrayed his religion, his country, his family. The world should know what he did," the prosecutor said, his voice tinged with rage.
"The jury found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," Sand added calmly.
The trial provided the most complete picture outside of secret government files of Bin Laden's terrorist organization. Jurors heard testimony from three Al Qaeda defectors who outlined the group's aims, operating methods and business ventures.
Hundreds of thousands of pages of material were used by prosecutors to prepare the case, which traced Bin Laden's roots in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s when he decided to export Islamic jihad--a campaign which led to the embassy attacks in the African capitals.
Prosecutors said that Al-'Owhali rode in the truck used in the attack on the Nairobi embassy and hurled a stun grenade at guards to try to gain closer access to the building.