NEW YORK — DID 12 men -- mostly of Middle Eastern background -- conspire on their own to blow up the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, and the United Nations? Or were the men political malcontents who were entrapped by an overzealous United States government?
A jury is expected to hear opening arguments today in a complicated and lengthy trial that will attempt to resolve these questions. The Justice Department charges that the men, led by a blind Muslim cleric, Omar Abdel Rahman, plotted to wage urban warfare as part of a jihad, or holy war.
They are charged with violating a rarely used Civil-War-era sedition law against stirring up discontent or resistance to the US government, as well as conspiring to overthrow it.
''This is big-time stuff -- it fits the label or category as one of the largest terrorism trials in US history,'' says Robert Pugsley, a professor of law at the Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles. However, the case lost some of its potential for legal bombshells when federal Judge Michael Mukasey ruled that controversial lawyers William Kunstler and Ronald Kuby could not represent Mr. Rahman, since they had some potential conflicts of interest in representing another defendant. They ar e no longer involved in the case. Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark is now part of the sheik's defense team.
The trial is expected to last six to nine months and include hundreds of witnesses. The US government has invested an enormous amount of time and money to pursue the defendants. Their indictment in August 1993 followed the bombing of the World Trade Center that February. Because of the milieu, Mr. Pugsley says, the defendants may have been people ''whose repulsive attitude towards the US and [their] foreign language made them easy targets.''
The prosecutors, for their part, will try to show that the US government was the target. Buttressing the government's arguments will be testimony from several informants, including Emad A. Salem, a former interpreter for the Sheik, a former Egyptian military officer. He made many tapes of his conversations with both the plotters and his handlers at the FBI.
The FBI will also testify about how it collared the men as they were making a ''witches brew'' of fertilizer and diesel oil. A more potent mixture had been used by the men convicted last May of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Former federal prosecutor Gerald Lynch, now a law professor at Columbia University, believes the case will ultimately be decided on the strength of the evidence. ''If the tapes show they wanted to plant charges here and there and then set them all off, presumably that is pretty easy,'' he notes. But, he adds, ''if there is more-ambiguous commentary, it may not be as clear that real crimes are being planned.''
The defense is likely to work hard to cast doubt about the credibility of the government witnesses. Mr. Salem, who was paid by the FBI, is certain to come under tough cross examination.
The sheik, who has been in prison pending the trial, has repeatedly denied any interest in harming the US. In fact, court documents indicate that most of his radical preaching has been against Israel and the Egyptian government.
The defense lawyers will have no trouble illustrating how Rahman has been pursued for his political remarks before. Earlier, he was tried and acquitted in Cairo of charges he plotted to overthrow the government.
''You cannot prevent political issues from being part of the trial,'' says Mr. Lynch. However, the judge may have to draw the line if the defense tries to put US Middle East policy on trial.
The defense will also have a difficult time claiming entrapment. Under federal law, a defendant must not only prove that he was induced to commit the crime, but also that he had no predisposition to commit the crime. ''You have to be a total innocent you have to show considerable reluctance to be technically entrapped,'' says Mr. Lynch.
The sheik is expected to testify in his own defense.