- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 2, 2010

SAN’A, Yemen (AP) — Yemen put a U.S.-born radical cleric on trial in absentia Tuesday, accusing him and two other men with plotting to kill foreigners and of being members of al Qaeda.

It was the first formal legal action by Yemen against Anwar al-Awlaki and came as the country faces heavy pressure to crack down on the terror network following the interception of two mail bombs intercepted in Dubai and Britain last week.

Yemen’s move isn’t likely to affect a U.S. decision to charge the cleric itself, since Washington doesn’t believe Yemen is reliable at holding its prisoners, especially after a number of high-profile suspects were released into the custody of their tribes.

Prosecutor Ali al-Saneaa announced the charges against Mr. al-Awlaki as part of a trial against another man, Hisham Assem, who has been charged accused of killing a Frenchman in an Oct. 6 attack at an oil firm’s compound where he worked as a security guard.

Mr. Assem, 19, was present in court, but Mr. al-Awlaki and a third suspect, Osman al-Awlaki, were charged in absentia. The hearing was held amid tight security measures at a courthouse in downtown San’a.

Mr. al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, is based in Yemen. U.S. investigators say e-mails link him to the Army psychiatrist accused of last year’s killings at Fort Hood, Texas. They also say that he helped prepare Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, accused in the Christmas airliner bombing attempt, and that he had links to the failed Times Square bombing.

The United States has put Mr. al-Awlaki, whose English-language sermons advocating jihad, or holy war, have inspired a number of Western-born militants, on a list of militants it wants killed or captured.

Mr. al-Awlaki is believed to be living in a mountainous region of Yemen, sheltered by his family and tribal religious leaders who say he has no ties to terrorism. Yemeni officials have said they will not turn him over to the United States because, as a Yemeni citizen, he must be prosecuted there.

In September, Mr. Abdulmutallab suggested in Detroit federal court that he was ready to plead guilty to some charges, raising the possibility that his cooperation could form the foundation for a U.S. case against Mr. al-Awlaki.

The Obama administration has rewritten the nation’s counterterrorism strategy so that it is also a legal matter to be settled in court. Charging Mr. al-Awlaki in the United States would also make it easier for the United States to demand he be turned over.

The prosecutor in Tuesday’s trial said Mr. Assem, a guard at the French engineering firm SPIE, had acknowledged that he received Internet messages from Mr. al-Awlaki inciting him to kill foreigners with whom he was working.

Mr. Assem, who appeared at Tuesday’s hearing wearing a blue prison overall, told interrogators that Mr. al-Awlaki persuaded him that foreigners are “occupiers” and sent him audiotapes with sermons justifying the killing of foreigners when he hesitated, according to the prosecutor.

On the date of the attack at SPIE, Mr. Assem followed a French manager and shot him dead in his office, then looked for other foreigners to kill, Mr. al-Saneaa said. Mr. Assem also shot at a British man, wounding him in the foot, the prosecutor added.

Mr. Assem denied all the charges and said he was tortured and forced to give false confessions.

The prosecutor said Mr. Assem was put in indirect contact with Anwar al-Awlaki through e-mails he sent to Osman al-Awlaki, a cousin of the wanted cleric.

The proceedings were then adjourned until Saturday to give prosecutors time to publish an announcement in the local papers notifying Mr. al-Awlaki and the third suspect of the charges against them and to assign a lawyer for Mr. Assem.

After Friday’s discovery of the two mail bombs that originated in Yemen, the United States and its allies on Monday further tightened scrutiny of shipments from the Arabian Peninsula country. Germany’s aviation authority on Monday extended its ban on air cargo from Yemen to include passenger flights.

A Yemeni government official in a statement Tuesday expressed “sorrow and astonishment” at Germany’s decision, describing it as “a mass punishment.”

The official also said that such a “rushed and exaggerated reaction to suspicious packages will harm Yemen’s efforts in combating terrorism and serves no one but al Qaeda terrorists who always sought to … hurt Yemen’s interests, reputation and relations with regional and international friends and partners.”

The statement did not identify the official, a common practice with the Yemeni government.

Matt Apuzzo in Washington contributed to this report.

 

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