NEW YORK — Was a blind Muslim cleric the mastermind in plots to blow up the World Trade Center in New York, assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and commit other acts of terrorism?
A jury may have to decide the guilt or innocence of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was indicted by a federal grand jury on these charges on Aug. 25. The sheikh was expected to be arraigned yesterday.
Sheikh Rahman is the spiritual leader of Gamaa Islamiya (Islamic Group), a militant organization that advocates overthrowing Egypt's secular government. Some of the group's members were charged in the Feb. 26 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York and will be tried on Sept. 14.
The US case against the sheikh is based on an informant, the sheikh's former bodyguard Emad Salem, who recorded conversations with the alleged bombers. According to the US indictment, the sheikh provided instructions on acts of terrorism, deciding whether they were permissible or forbidden.
M. T. Mehdi, president of the American-Arab Relations Committee, denounced the charges. "We believe the indictment reflects the triumph of intolerance and paranoia in America."
It is unclear what the sheikh's indictment will mean to the government's long attempt to deport him. Rahman's immigration lawyer, Barbara Nelson, says she believes the indictment will slow the process. Ms. Nelson is preparing an appeal of a lower court decision ordering the deportation.
Lawyers believe the US government has taken a novel approach to the law. For example, the indictment charges a defendant, El Sayyid Nosair, with a racketeering offense in the murder of New York Rabbi Meir Kahane on Nov. 5, 1990. Mr. Nosair was previously acquitted of murder in that case, but convicted of a weapons charge.
"If the focus is to recharge, that crosses the line of acceptability," says Sheldon Krantz, a lawyer who teaches at American University.
In addition, the US is charging the sheikh and others with plotting a murder on foreign shores. It is unclear in this case if the US has the jurisdiction to try individuals for foreign crimes. In an unusual move, the US also has charged the sheikh with sedition - plodding to overthrow the US government.
"This case is a gold mine of issues," says Mr. Krantz.