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Wednesday, April 4, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ressam prosecution rests; defense says it can present its case in a day

Seattle Times staff reporter

LOS ANGELES - Prosecutors have rested their case in the Ahmed Ressam bombing trial without a mention to the jury of Osama bin Laden or the Islamic holy war the government believes drove the plot to smuggle explosives into the United States. The government, over the past 3½ weeks, has called 110 witnesses and entered more than 600 exhibits into evidence but was barred from bringing in the crucial testimony that could have answered the question "Why?"

The man prosecutors had called to provide the answer, French terrorist hunter Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, was muzzled by a ruling that his testimony would have so prejudiced the defense that it could have violated Ressam's right to a fair trial.

The defense had been fighting to keep Bruguiere's testimony from the jury for months, and public defender Thomas Hillier acknowledged the victory was "huge."

The ruling could affect the government's ability to prove the first, and most serious, count of the indictment, which alleges Ressam and others had engaged in a three-year conspiracy to commit an act of international terrorism, targeting West Coast cities' millennium celebrations.

Ressam was arrested Dec. 14, 1999, at the Port Angeles ferry terminal in a rented car with 113 pounds of explosives and other bomb-making materials in the trunk.

Bruguiere was allowed to take the witness stand yesterday, but only to acknowledge that he had been investigating Ressam, some of his Montreal friends and roommates, and others in Paris since 1996. He was not allowed to say why, or identify evidence he uncovered that linked Ressam and some of the others to bin Laden's militant Islamic organization or the Afghan terrorist-training camps he allegedly finances.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Gonzalez was repeatedly frustrated by defense objections, sustained by U.S. District Judge John Coughenour, when his questions tread too closely to the inadmissible information.

In the end, the defense never asked Bruguiere a question.

In earlier testimony, outside the presence of the jury, Bruguiere said Ressam and several others were part of a terrorist cell of the Armed Islamic Group operating out of Montreal.

The eight-woman, four-man jury in the case is expected to begin deliberations as early as tomorrow afternoon. After more than three weeks of prosecution testimony, Ressam's attorneys said they should be able to present their case - consisting of six witnesses - in one day.

The defense maintains that Ressam was a courier who had limited knowledge about the explosives in the trunk.

The Ressam case, which was moved to Los Angeles from Seattle because of pretrial publicity and security concerns, has caught the eye of nearby Hollywood.

Yesterday morning, Coughenour told the jury not to watch the hit television show "West Wing" this week.

The hourlong drama, which gives an inside view of the Oval Office, deals with "a foreign terrorist caught at the border with explosives," according to the NBC Web site.

"It has subject matter that touches a little too close to this case," the judge said.

Mike Carter can be reached at mcarter@seattletimes.com.

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