PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad – The leader of an Islamic group that staged a deadly coup attempt 22 years ago in Trinidad went on trial Wednesday on charges of making seditious statements during a sermon at his mosque.
Seventy-year-old Yasin Abu Bakr is accused of threatening affluent Muslims he believed were not paying an Islamic tithe for the poor, telling them during a 2005 sermon that "blood could flow." His attorney said he was not threatening anyone and simply speaking freely.
"Is it that only Abu Bakr is not equal before the law and does not have freedom of thought and expression?" defense attorney Wayne Sturge asked the judge Wednesday.
Legal delays and an ankle injury Abu Bakr suffered delayed the trial for years.
Prosecuting attorney Dana Seetahal said the case is based on a video from a local TV news crew that recorded the sermon.
Two witnesses for the state testified Wednesday, the news cameraman who videotaped the sermon and a police constable who first questioned Abu Bakr.
High Court Judge Mark Mohammed ordered the nine-member, all-female jury to erase from their minds that Abu Bakr was the leader of a group involved in the July 1990 coup attempt.
Abu Bakr and 114 members of Jamaat al Muslimeen detonated a car bomb that destroyed a police station in front of Parliament. They then stormed into legislature and took the prime minister and his Cabinet hostage during a shooting rampage that killed 24 people. The rebels surrendered six days later after the government gave them amnesty, ending the only Islamic revolt in the Western Hemisphere.
The power of Jamaat al Muslimeen has since faded, although some of its followers have been accused of participating in shootings, kidnappings and bank robberies. The group is largely made up of black converts to Sunni Islam.
The government has repeatedly investigated Abu Baker on other charges, but he has never been convicted.
In 2005, Abu Bakr was interrogated but not prosecuted in connection with at least four bombings in the capital, Port-of-Spain.
In 2007, U.S. authorities accused four men, including two Trinidadians, of planning to attack John F. Kennedy International Airport, saying they had sought support from Jamaat al Muslimeen. Court documents state the men didn't receive help from the group, and Abu Bakr later told the AP that he did not know the men or about the plot to bomb a fuel pipeline feeding the airport.
In September 2010, prosecutors in Trinidad charged Abu Bakr with the 1998 killing of a 22-year-old mechanic. A month later they dropped the case for lack of evidence.