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Suleiman abu Ghaith convicted at terror trial

This frame grab from the Saudi-owned television network

This frame grab from the Saudi-owned television network MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Center) shows Suleiman Abu Ghaith, the alleged spokesman of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, claiming responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States in an undated videotape broadcast by the Dubai-based MBC on April 17, 2002. Credit: Getty Images / Middle East Broadcasting Center

A federal jury in Manhattan, in only its second day of deliberations, Wednesday convicted accused al-Qaida propagandist Suleiman abu Ghaith of conspiring to kill Americans by making jihadist videotapes in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Abu Ghaith, 48, a charismatic Kuwaiti preacher and son-in-law of Osama bin Laden who prosecutors called the most senior al-Qaida official to go on trial in a civilian court since Sept. 11, 2001, was quiet and inscrutable as the verdict was read.

Defense lawyer Stanley Cohen later described him as "stoic" and said the verdict, delivered just a few blocks from the site of the Twin Towers shortly after jurors were told they would stay late if they didn't finish, was not a surprise.

"He's an Arab. A Muslim. An imam. A Kuwaiti. . . . He feels it was impossible under the circumstances to receive a fair trial," said Cohen.

Abu Ghaith was best known for appearing in a notorious Sept. 12 video in front of a cave with bin Laden, and warning Americans that "a great army is gathering against you." He later fled to Iran, where he was imprisoned. The United States took custody of him last year.

In addition to the conviction for conspiracy to kill Americans, abu Ghaith was convicted of conspiring to provide material support and of actually giving material support to al-Qaida by using his fiery oratory to recruit new members. He faces a possible life sentence. U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan set sentencing for Sept. 8.

"He was more than just Osama bin Laden's propaganda minister. . . . Abu Ghaith was using his position in al-Qaida's homicidal hierarch to persuade others to pledge themselves to al-Qaida in the cause of murdering more Americans," said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a New Yorker, said the trial outcome should end debate about whether terrorists could be successfully prosecuted in civilian, rather than military, courts.

"This verdict has proved that proceedings such as these can safely occur in the city I am proud to call home," he said.

Prosecutors did not accuse abu Ghaith of knowing about Sept. 11. They did argue, with little evidence, that he knew about a follow-on plot to blow up planes with shoe bombs, which he referred to by threatening a "storm of airplanes."

Abu Ghaith testified last week. He said he never had anything to do with a terror act, never joined al-Qaida, and intended in his speeches only to discuss Muslim religious principles of self-defense against oppressors.

The verdict -- from an anonymous jury of nine women and three men -- came after about six hours of deliberation that began Tuesday. Wednesday morning, 60 minutes before it was returned, Kaplan warned jurors he would likely keep them into the evening if they didn't finish deliberating by the afternoon.

Cohen said those comments were the last in a series of actions by Kaplan during the trial that hurt the defense. He said the judge's hurry-up message was "coercive" and diminished the importance of the deliberations.

"What are you saying to a jury when the judge says, 'This is not a big deal,' " Cohen said. "When a judge sends that message, it's very powerful."

Cohen said an appeal was likely. In addition to the comments to the jury, he said Kaplan erred by blocking exculpatory testimony about abu Ghaith's role in al-Qaida from Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in custody at Guantánamo military prison.

An appeal is also likely to focus on the judge's legal instruction about abu Ghaith's alleged intent to kill Americans, said Cohen, who argues that jurors were wrongly permitted to convict based on al-Qaida's record of terrorism predating his involvement.

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