Al Qaeda Suspects on Trial in Italy

A Milan judge is weighing a prosecutor's request to convict a Tunisian suspected of being Usama bin Laden's European logistics chief and charged with providing false documents to Al Qaeda recruits.

Essid Sami Ben Khemais, known as "the Saber," and three other Tunisians went on trial Tuesday.

A quick verdict had been expected, but after the morning session Wednesday, the judge put off the verdict until Feb. 22. Lawyers said she wanted more time to study the case.

The proceedings were closed to the public and the press, but a lawyer quoted Ben Khemais as telling the court: "I am a practicing Muslim, not a terrorist."

After Wednesday's proceedings, defense lawyer Gianluca Maris told reporters that he had asked for all four to be acquitted, arguing that the prosecution had only bits of intelligence from secret service agencies to back its case. "This can't be the proof in a trial," he said.

The defense requested and received a fast-track trial. The procedure allows for a limited amount of evidence to be introduced in a closed-door hearing and a reduced sentence if the defendant is convicted.

A guilty verdict by Judge Giovanna Verga would be the first Al Qaeda-related conviction in Europe since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States.

The four are charged with supplying false documents, breaking immigration laws, and criminal association with the intent to obtain and transport arms, explosives and chemicals.

No weapons or chemicals were found, but prosecutors say wiretaps of phone conversations indicated a conspiracy to obtain them, including one in which Ben Khemais spoke of an unspecified "drug," also referring to it as "tomato cans," and said he wanted to learn how to use it and see what effect it had on someone breathing it.

The four are not accused of direct involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. They are accused of having fabricated false passports and other documents that allowed Al Qaeda recruits to travel in Europe and elsewhere.

At the time of the alleged crimes, Italian law allowed for a maximum nine-year sentence for the charges, which is why the terms sought by the prosecution may seem low.

Prior to the attacks, Italian law did not address terrorist charges for people operating in Italy but being part of a terrorist organization outside of Italy. Prosecutors say the Milan cell is essentially that.

Therefore, the defendants could not be charged with terrorism, and instead were accused of being part of a criminal organization.

After Sept. 11, parliament changed the law to allow for people in Italy to be accused of being international terrorists.

Under the reduced sentence scenario, Prosecutor Stefano Dambruoso asked for a six-year term for Ben Khemais, whom police believe was sent from Afghanistan to supervise bin Laden's terrorist operations in Europe.

He sought 4-year terms for the other three Tunisians — Belgacem Mohamed Ben Aouadi, Bouchoucha Mokhtar and Charaabi Tarek.

The four men were arrested between April and October last year as part of a joint Italian-German investigation into the Al Qaeda network in Europe.

Ben Khemais is also suspected of having supervised a planned attack on the U.S. Embassy in Rome last January, Italian investigators have said, although he is not charged in that case. Spanish authorities, meanwhile, are trying to determine whether Ben Khemais met with Sept. 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta in Spain last year.

The Italian investigation has focused on Milan's Islamic Cultural Center and mosque, a converted garage which the United States has called "the main Al Qaeda station house in Europe." One of the four whose case is to be decided this week, Ben Aouadi, was arrested outside the center on Oct. 10.

Defense lawyers have said the men have no links to bin Laden and are not terrorists. Lawyers told reporters Tuesday that Ben Khemais had admitted in court to trafficking in false documents, but only for personal profit.