Court convicts 15 Muslim militants of terror conspiracy
AMMAN, Jordan -- A military court convicted 15 men Wednesday -- only one of whom was in custody -- for a terror conspiracy targeting U.S. and Israeli interests in Jordan as well as its intelligence officials.
Ahmad Mahmoud Saleh al-Riyati, 34, was convicted of being the mastermind of the 15-member terror cell linked to al-Qaida and Ansar al-Islam militant groups. Al-Riyati, the only suspect in custody, was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but the court then cut the term by half to give him another chance in life.
"Oh man, all these charges were false!" the bearded al-Riyati shouted at the head military judge, Col. Fawaz Buqour.
"Allah is my savior and guardian," said al-Riyati, angrily waving his arms. His feet were chained together.
Eight of the other 14 -- 12 of them Jordanians and two Iraqis -- received sentences of 15 years in jail with hard labor.
The court formally convicted the remaining six, then dropped the cases against them, saying they had died. This is standard procedure in Jordanian courts so the conviction can stand if evidence later emerges they are alive.
The court did not say how they died, but military prosecution sources have said they were killed battling American forces in Iraq.
Al-Riyati's attorney, Hani Abdul-Qader, told The Associated Press that he planned to appeal.
Military prosecutors said all eight sentenced to 15 years in jail were believed to be in Iran, except for Najm al-Din Faraj Ahmad, who is better known as Mullah Krekar and is the spiritual leader of Ansar al-Islam. He lives in Norway as a refugee and has denied the charges.
On Tuesday, the Norwegian national prosecutor dropped terrorism charges against Krekar filed in Oslo, partly because a key witness' testimony in Iraq may have been tainted by torture.
Jordan had sought Krekar's extradition to face heroin smuggling charges here, but Norway does not have an extradition agreement with the kingdom.
The indictment said Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network and Ansar al-Islam had recruited al-Riyati and his cell to conduct terror attacks against U.S. and Israeli interests in Jordan as well as to attack Western tourists and assassinate top Jordanian intelligence officers.
Addressing reporters, al-Riyati said Jordanian intelligence "hatched this conspiracy against me and I was tried for something nonsensical so that Bush will be pleased with Jordan."
Many other convicted terror conspirators have accused Jordan of unfairly putting them on trial to bolster the U.S. war against terrorism.
U.S. forces arrested al-Riyati in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq immediately after the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein's regime and extradited him to Jordan in April 2003.
Also Wednesday, the military court upheld al-Riyati's conviction in absentia for his role in a foiled millennium terror conspiracy in Jordan linked to al-Qaida. It did not, however, uphold his sentence of 15 years in jail, because Jordanian law requires anyone convicted in absentia to be retried on the same charge once captured.
At the start of his trial in October, al-Riyati pleaded innocent and denied involvement in both terror conspiracies. He asked the court to throw out confessions to his Kurdish, American and Jordanian interrogators, saying he was tortured during questioning.
The indictment said al-Riyati was initially recruited in 1998 by Jordanian-American Raed Hijazi, an al-Qaida operative convicted of the millennium terror plot in Jordan and sentenced to death. Al-Riyati received training on "manufacturing and mixing explosives and poisons" in Afghanistan in preparation for the millennium terror plot in Jordan.
But his plan to return to Jordan was scrapped when the plot was foiled in November 1999. Instead, he joined the ranks of Jordanian-born Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi in Afghanistan.
Al-Zarqawi, also known as Ahmed al-Khalayleh, is a reputed top al-Qaida figure convicted in several terror plots in Jordan, including the millennium conspiracy and another against Americans and Israelis that began with the killing of U.S. aid worker Laurence Foley in 2002.
The United States has offered $10 million for information leading to al-Zarqawi's capture or killing, saying he was trying to build a network of foreign fighters in Iraq to work for al-Qaida.
Hijazi or al-Zarqawi were not among the 15 defendants.