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Tuesday, April 3, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Terrorist expert's testimony limited; judge says Ressam jury might lose its focus

Seattle Times staff reporter

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LOS ANGELES - Jurors in the Ahmed Ressam case will not be told of his ties to a radical Islamic terrorist cell in Montreal or its link to Saudi businessman Osama bin Laden after a judge ruled that the evidence is too inflammatory.

U.S. District Judge John Coughenour told prosecutors yesterday they could not use the expert testimony of Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a French prosecutor and expert in Islamic terrorism, to describe Ressam as a player in an international conspiracy that they say stretched from terrorist training camps in Afghanistan to the quiet Washington border town of Port Angeles, where Ressam was arrested Dec. 14, 1999, with a car loaded with explosives.

The judge's decision came at the conclusion of a hearing yesterday in which the government, through Bruguiere, tied Ressam to a paper trail leading to bin Laden, the Saudi exile accused of being the mastermind behind the 1998 bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa that left 224 people dead.

It's now unlikely the eight-woman, four-man jury will hear all of that evidence, or get a tutorial on radical Islamic terrorism from Bruguiere, a renowned terrorist hunter, because Coughenour believes it could unduly influence deliberations.

In making the ruling, Coughenour did not dispute Bruguiere's credibility, saying he found the French magistrate "an expert whose credentials are breathtakingly extraordinary."

But the judge said he was concerned Bruguiere's expertise could distract the jury from other evidence. "The force of his reputation would carry the risk that the jury would not focus on hard facts," Coughenour said. "I must conclude that the probative (evidence) value of his testimony would be outweighed by its prejudice to the defendant."

It was the latest and by far the most devastating setback to the prosecution's effort to prove Ressam a terrorist rather than the unwitting courier the defense has made him out to be. Citing similar concerns, Coughenour earlier barred other testimony that prosecutors believe showed Ressam as an active participant, if not a leader, in a terrorist conspiracy.

Thomas Hillier, the federal public defender leading Ressam's defense team, argued that Bruguiere's testimony would be relevant only to show Ressam's motive, which doesn't have to be proved to obtain a conviction on any of the nine charges he faces.

"And what it does is inject highly controversial, and we feel unnecessary, information into this trial," Hillier said.

Playing into stereotypes

The defense had voiced concerns since before the trial about raising the issue of radical Islamic terrorism to the jury, saying the inflamed rhetoric surrounding such figures as bin Laden would play into stereotypes and prejudice jurors against Ressam.

Prosecutors have been trying for months to persuade the judge to allow Bruguiere to give his expert opinion. The hearing yesterday was a continuation of a similar daylong hearing in Seattle last December.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Diskin, the lead prosecutor in the case, declined to comment on the judge's ruling, except to say Bruguiere would still be called as a witness.

Coughenour, however, said the Bruguiere could testify only to "factual matters" in front of the jury.

In yesterday's hearing without the jury present, Bruguiere took the witness stand to face Ressam, whom the French magistrate has been investigating as a terrorist for more than four years.

Bruguiere recently prosecuted Ressam and 23 other Algerians in Paris for their alleged involvement in an organization believed responsible for bank robberies and subway bombings in Paris.

Bruguiere traveled to Montreal in October 1999 - two months before Ressam's arrest in Port Angeles - to interrogate Ressam, but found that he had disappeared.

Fingerprints found

In searching the home of an associate, however, authorities turned up a Swiss bank calendar bearing Ressam's fingerprints and the most compelling evidence so far linking Ressam to bin Laden - none of which the jury will be allowed to hear.

Among the evidence Bruguiere said he found was a post-office box number in Peshawar, Pakistan, known to belong to Abu Zoubaida, a top lieutenant in the bin Laden organization.

That same post-office box was also used by a man identified as Abu Jaffar, whose coded telephone number Ressam was carrying when he was arrested, Bruguiere testified.

Jaffar, he said, ran what prosecutors have called a "transit house," a location used as a jumping-off point to bin Laden-financed terrorist camps in Afghanistan.

Bruguiere said he was able to break the code and decipher the telephone number after intercepting letters from Mustapha Labsi, a former Ressam roommate currently being held by British authorities as a suspected terrorist.

Prosecutors contend Labsi accompanied Ressam to the Afghan camps in 1998.

Mike Carter can be reached at 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com.

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