Saturday, January 12, 2013
PORTLAND, Oregon: A Somali-American accused of trying to blow up a crowded US Christmas-tree lighting ceremony went on trial, more than two years after being arrested in an FBI sting operation.
Arguing in court just blocks from the site of the tree lighting in the US state of Oregon, lawyers presented rival pictures of Mohamed Mohamud, either as a troubled youth tricked by undercover agents or a hardened Islamist terrorist.
The 21-year-old's defence lawyer claimed Mohamud never would have attempted to detonate the "bomb" -- a harmless fake supplied by FBI agents -- on November 26, 2010 if agents posing as terrorists had not coerced the confused then-teenager into it.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation "created a crime that never would have happened without them," attorney Stephen Sady told the 16-strong jury which will decide Mohamud's fate, in the long-awaited trial.
"He wasn't a perfect human being," added. "But he wasn't someone who was sitting around thinking about blowing up his hometown."
The "entrapment" argument is crucial to Mohamud's defence and likely his only shot at avoiding life in prison on the charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.
Under US law, authorities cannot trick someone into committing a crime. That means the government must prove Mohamud was predisposed to violence before undercover agents ever approached him.
The government counters that Mohamud was not tricked and willingly chose to press the button on a cell phone that he believed would kill thousands gathered in downtown Pioneer Square.
"He said he would push the button because it would make him happy to have bodies torn everywhere," Assistant US Attorney Pamala Holsinger told jurors.
"By the time he met FBI agents he had already decided that violence against civilians, in or out of the US, was justified," she said.
Mohamud watched the proceedings from a table with his attorneys, taking notes on a legal pad. At one point he seemed to become emotional, and an attorney put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
About 10 family members sat on the other side of the packed courtroom, occasionally coming and going from the courtroom with what appeared to be a prayer rug.
The high-profile trial, expected to last at least several weeks, has all the makings of a cloak-and-dagger spy drama.
Undercover agents testifying in disguise will give a rare glimpse into the world of FBI sting operations. Jurors will tour the van the government packed with phony explosives and gave to Mohamud, telling him it was the real thing.
The terror case is highly unusual for this West Coast city known for its laid back, quirky culture -- the informal city motto is "Keep Portland weird" -- and not on anyone's list of top terror targets.
It has raised questions not only about where an attack can happen, but also about how authorities pursue potential threats while protecting the civil liberties of US citizens.