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DA asks judge to bar public for some terror trial testimony

Jose Pimentel is arraigned at a criminal court

Jose Pimentel is arraigned at a criminal court in Manhattan. Pimentel, an "al-Qaida sympathizer" is accused of plotting to bomb police and post offices in New York City as well as U.S. troops returning home. He was charged with criminal possession of explosive devices with the intent to use in a terrorist manner. (Nov. 20, 2011) Credit: AP

The Manhattan district attorney's office has asked to ban the public from the courtroom at the upcoming terrorism trial of Jose Pimentel when two informants and an undercover officer accused of entrapping the Bronx man testify.

Pimentel, 29, of Manhattan, was charged in 2011 with attempting to make a bomb, and his scheduled Feb. 24 trial will be the first under a state terrorism law. The FBI did not pursue a federal case due to concern about the informants' influence, sources say.

The district attorney's office contends that the safety of the two confidential informants and the NYPD undercover detective, who began probing Pimentel in 2009 based on online radicalism, could be jeopardized if they had to appear in open court, or give their real names.

"A casual review of his YouTube accounts at the time of his arrest reveals that he has 4,040 friends and 1,564 subscribers, many of whom are . . . dangerous individuals," the prosecutors wrote Justice Thomas Farber. "Any one of these individuals could decide to exact revenge."

Pimentel's lawyers contend that the informers used questionable tactics -- including supplying and smoking marijuana with him -- to eventually get him to help build a bomb at the home of one of the NYPD agents.

"The tactics that were used in a case like this the public has a right to know what it was, whether they want to approve or disapprove," said defense lawyer Susan Walsh after a hearing on Wednesday.

Farber said he would hold a hearing on closing the court at the start of trial. He said keeping the informants and officer anonymous was more likely than closing the trial, warning prosecutors there was a "very strong presumption" for openness.

"We don't do it because the defendant has 1,000 friends on Facebook," he said.

Pimentel faces a maximum sentence of 25 years to life on conspiracy, weapons and other charges. He maintained a radical website called "True Islam," which posted bomb instructions from the al-Qaida magazine Inspire, officials said.

In other rulings Wednesday, Farber said he probably wouldn't let prosecutors present extensive testimony from a counterterrorism expert, which had little to do with the core issues of Pimentel's interaction with the government operatives.

"Expert testimony would do nothing other than turn this trial into a referendum on terrorism, which I don't want it to become," the judge said.

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