Muslims Watch N.Y. Trial, But Only From a Distance

Arab reporters stay away from the courtroom, feeling intimidated by tight security procedures. But attorneys from both sides say bomb trial is fair.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ESSA RAHMAN is visiting the courtroom for the first time to show his ``concern'' for the four men on trial for the World Trade Center bombing.

``Everyone is kind of keeping a low profile since people don't want to get harassed,'' says Mr. Rahman, explaining why the Muslim community has not shown up in large numbers for the trial.

In fact, defense lawyers say that only a handful of the defendants' friends regularly show up in Judge Kevin Duffy's courtroom to watch the trial, now into its ninth week.

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Not only are there few spectators, there are virtually no Arab reporters covering the trial.

``It's mindboggling,'' says Hassen Ibn Abdellah, one of the defense attorneys.

``If someone told me no minority community press and no Arab press would cover this trial, I wouldn't have believed them.''

Lamont X. Curry, an editor at The Final Call, the newspaper of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam movement, says the paper has only carried a short item on a suicide attempt by one of the suspects.

``We are about to step up our coverage,'' he says.

Mr. Hassan says high security during the trial has had a ``chilling effect'' on the minority press.

There is no question that the security is tight. At least eight federal court officers stand watch in the courtroom at all times. More guard the outside of the room. Spectators and press go through at least two sets of metal detectors.

All visitors have to sign in and present identification, which is recorded, before being admitted into the trial. Court officers escort spectators to the seats and tell them where to sit.

On Tuesday, a man who was dressed in Muslim clothing walked into the trial room, appeared to become flustered by the security, and turned around and left.

The tight security has also carried over to the imprisonment of the defendents. Two of the men have attempted suicide since the trial began.

The suicide attempts are the result of harsh treatment in prison, says M.T. Mehdi, president of the American-Arab relations Committee. He says the men on trial are incarcerated in 6-by-8-foot cells for 23 hours per day on weekdays when there is no trial and all day on weekends. They are not allowed to meet for collective prayer or group recreation.

``This is inhuman treatment and these are conditions which violate the Constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment - especially since these men have not been convicted of anything,'' says Mr. Mehdi, who has appealed to the judge.

The judge has said he does not intend to interfere with the running of the prison.

DESPITE the harsh treatment in prison, Mehdi believes the trial is being conducted fairly.

``The judge has been as judicious as he can be, occasionally letting the government lawyers let their political views intrude,'' he says.

The defense lawyers also say the trial has been fair. ``From all viewpoints you can't say this hasn't been fair,'' Mr. Hassen says. ``Anyone who has observed it, feels it is a fair trial,'' says Clarence Faines III, another defense attorney.

However, Lenora Fulani, the head of the New Alliance Party, a radical fringe group, says: ``I do not believe an Arab can get a fair trial in New York City under the current conditions.'' She says she is ``very concerned about the way the case is going.''

The case itself is going very slowly as the prosecution attempts to show the jury so many details of the case that the circumstantial evidence will appear overwhelming.

Defense lawyers say the prosecution has now entered the ``meaty'' portion of the case. ``We are no longer on the periphery,'' says Robert Precht, a defense attorney.

Although the prosecution is deeply into the case, the evidence is being presented like a giant jigsaw puzzle which has yet to be put together.

For example, on Monday, the prosecutors called Michael Felton, the superintendent of an apartment where one of the defendants, Mohammed Salameh, lived prior to the bombing.

He described how he found the apartment walls covered with blue splotches after Mr. Salameh moved out. He identified photos of the walls made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

However, the prosecution has yet to identify the material on the walls.

In another similar development on Monday, a government witness, Carl Butler, described how he watched some men move a large number of newspapers and five-gallon cans into a station wagon.

He described seeing a person with ``the weirdest red hair I've ever seen'' supervising some of the activity.

However, he could not identify that person in the courtroom even though one of the defendants, Mahmoud Abouhalima, has curly red-orange hair.

Then, on Tuesday, an FBI agent described fingerprinting Salameh. He was followed by a technician who described how she uncovered a ``latent'' fingerprint, left by amino acids on a parking ticket, dated Feb. 24, two days before the bombing, from the World Trade Center garage. The prosecution did not immediately identify the fingerprint.

Instead, the defense attorneys expect the government will call a series of expert witnesses later to start to tie together the countless details. The prosecution's case is now expected to go through Christmas.

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