Wren: Terror Trials In New York
11/20/09 5:55PM By Chris Wren
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(WREN) The debate over whether five terror suspects detained at Guantanamo should be tried in a civilian court in New York overlooks a key fact: We did it a dozen years ago, and the verdict was a ringing endorsement of the American way of justice.
As a newspaper reporter, I covered the trial in 1996 of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, later linked to Al Qaeda, who planned the earlier bombing of the World Trade Center in February 1993, killing six and injuring hundreds more. Yousef - by the way - was later revealed as a nephew of Khalil Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
For fourteen weeks in federal court in Lower Manhattan, I watched Yousef - one of his many aliases - stand trial for conspiring with two other defendants to blow up a dozen or more American jetliners over the Pacific in a single day. Yousef tested one of his bombs on a flight from the Phillipines to Tokyo, killing a passenger. His plot was exposed when the explosive he was brewing in a Manila hotel caught fire, bringing not the cops but the firemen. He escaped, but was betrayed by a disciple in Pakistan a year and a half later for a two-million-dollar reward and flown to New York.
Yousef tried to turn his trial into a circus. He fired his lawyer and insisted on defending himself, to have a platform for diatribes against the United States and Israel. But Judge Kevin Duffy would have none of it. He guided Yousef through fine legal points but cut him off whenever he began to rant. Yousef and his partners-in-crime were found guilty. Then Yousef underwent a new trial for bombing the World Trade Center, and was convicted on all counts. "Yes," he proclaimed at last, "I am a terrorist, and proud of it."
Yousef told an F.B.I. agent that he expected to be a martyr, but wanted to write a book first. Judge Duffy did not give him that satisfaction. Calling Yousef an "apostle of evil" who couldn't even name his victims, the judge sent him to solitary confinement for life, plus 240 years. He's still locked up, inside a super-secure prison in Florence, Colorado.
Watching Yousef self-destruct made me realize how little his cause had to do with real Islam. He did not even bring a Koran or prayer rug to court. And while he may have inspired Al Qaeda to convert commercial airliners into weapons of mass destruction, Yousef displayed neither charisma nor courage.
So I've seen our legal system treat terrorists as common criminals, and I've seen it work first hand. It's time to show the world what these killers in the shadow of 9/11 look like in the naked light of an American courtroom.