THE sudden guilty plea by a key defendant in the New York terrorist bombing trial could significantly bolster the government's case against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and 11 other Middle Eastern men.
Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, referred to by the government as the ``mastermind'' of the plot to blow up several landmarks in New York, surprised the court when he pleaded guilty to all counts against him before yesterday's session.
Although Mr. Siddig's plea was not expected, a lawyer familiar with the case - the largest terrorist trial in US history - said Siddig had tried to work out an agreement with the government before the trial. When that agreement did not come about, Siddig pleaded not guilty before Judge Michael Mukasey.
It is not yet clear if Siddig will testify for the government. If he does take the witness stand, it will buttress the government's case.
``If the person who knows the most, without any definite agreement by which his testimony is purchased by the government, takes the stand, he can be a very effective prosecution witness,'' says H. Richard Uviller, a professor of law at Columbia University.
In opening arguments last week, it was clear defense lawyers planned to try to impugn the testimony of Emad Salem, the state's chief informant who recorded conversations with the defendants as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
``It could be devastating to the codefendants,'' says Austin Campriello, a lawyer who represented one of the convicted World Trade Center bombers. But Mr. Campriello says it's also possible that Siddig could take blame away from the other defendants by taking responsibilty for the entire plot.
If Siddig does not testify, the jury is unlikely to know what has happened.
``They may think he has gotten sick, or escaped,'' says Mr. Uviller, ``and they will be told not to speculate on his absence.'' However, his decision is likely to worry the defense lawyers.
It's not clear why Siddig would choose this particular time to plead guilty. Uviller, a former state prosecutor, says the government is not likely to agree to leniency to an individual considered a major player.
``He maybe decided to take his chances by assisting the government,'' says Uviller.
When Siddig was originally considering pleading in the case, he was represented by attorneys William Kuntsler and Ronald Kuby. However, he dropped both lawyers who were later barred from representing any other defendants in the trial.
According to the government's opening statement, Siddig has helped in a plot to assassinate Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. The government said the plot involved the terrorists dressing up as room service employees or hijacking a United Parcel Service truck and detonating a bomb when Mubarak passed near it.
When that plan did not come about, the govenment charges that Siddig organized ``a day or terror'' when bombs would go off simultaneously in the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, the United Nations, and the local FBI headquarters.
To prepare for the bombing, the government said Siddig rented a ``safe house'' in Queens and appealed to Mr. Salem to help him make the bombs. The government charged that Siddig helped to recruit the rest of the alledged terrorists.
The government further charged that Siddig consulted with the sheik to determine if it was appropriate to bomb the United Nations. According to the government, the sheik recommended military targets instead.
Siddig was also part of a group that participated in quasi-military training in Pennsylvania. However, the defense lawyers have arged that the training was for action in Bosnia-Herzegovina, not the US.
Last week Siddig's attorney, Jerry Tritz, argued that the Egyptian government targeted Siddig, a citizen of Sudan. He further contended that Siddig was entrapped by Salem, who had worked for Egyptian intelligence.
``Salem is the why - the driving force - of this case,'' Mr. Tritz said.
Over the next few months of the trial, the other defense lawyers will try to prepare for Siddig's expected testimony.