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At Padilla terror trial, a witness's surprise effect

A witness for the US government has painted a less-than-menacing picture of a terrorist training camp.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 21, 2007


Federal prosecutors had high hopes that Yahya Goba would emerge as a key witness in the trial of suspected Al Qaeda recruit Jose Padilla.

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Now they are hoping he doesn't.

When Mr. Goba was arrested in September 2002, he was portrayed as America's worst nightmare. Government officials said he was a member of an Al Qaeda sleeper cell who was recruited for jihad, went to Afghanistan to train in the use of weapons and explosives, and returned to Lackawanna, N.Y., to quietly await further instructions from Osama bin Laden.

It was the same path that prosecutors say was followed by Mr. Padilla. Goba's detailed telling of his story was seen by federal prosecutors as a winning trial strategy, an opportunity to show the jury firsthand how a Muslim-American could wind up in a terrorist training camp run by Al Qaeda.

But the picture of Goba that is emerging from the witness stand at Padilla's trial is less menacing than federal prosecutors had hoped. Rather than boosting the government's case, his testimony appears to be helping Padilla make his.

Goba began his testimony on Friday and is expected to continue on the witness stand Monday morning.

He is appearing at the trial under a plea agreement and is seeking to have the government reduce his 10-year prison sentence. Goba, who is married with a 4-year-old daughter, has a strong additional incentive to cooperate in every way with the government. He wants to avoid being designated an enemy combatant and diverted out of the criminal justice system into indefinite military detention.

Padilla was held and interrogated for three years and eight months in military custody as an enemy combatant before being named in the current criminal case.

The Miami indictment charges that Padilla and his two codefendants formed a terror support cell that provided money, equipment, and recruits to Islamic militants. Padilla is portrayed as a willing recruit.

His lawyers say he is a devout Muslim who traveled to the Middle East to advance his religious study. They deny that he attended a terror training camp in Afghanistan.

Goba as a stand-in for Padilla

The irony of Goba's testimony is that defense attorneys appear to be doing to the prosecution with their own witness what prosecutors set out to do to the defense. They are using Goba as a stand-in for Padilla.

In his opening statement to the jury, Assistant US Attorney Brian Frazier said that Goba would explain "just what kind of training Jose Padilla wanted" at the camp in Afghanistan.

Defense lawyers objected. And US District Judge Marcia Cooke sustained their objection. It was a preview of what was to come.

When the government announced last week that Goba would be the next witness, defense lawyers argued that prosecutors would try to hold Padilla accountable for Goba's conduct by implying to the jury that both were members of a single, massive Islamic conspiracy.

Judge Cooke rejected the government's broad Islamic conspiracy theory, saying there was no evidentiary connection between Goba's cell in Lackawanna and the alleged South Florida cell. The judge limited Goba's testimony to his own personal experiences at the Al Farooq training camp in Afghanistan. He could testify about filling out a "Mujahideen Data Form" identical to the form that the government says Padilla filled out.

But the judge barred prosecutors from showing the jury a 30-second film of Mr. bin Laden visiting the Al Farooq camp while Goba was there. The judge ruled it wasn't relevant to Padilla's case because Padilla is alleged to have attended the camp 10 months earlier.