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Terrorism case may take months

5:45 PM, Jan 9, 2010   |    comments
Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab - US Marshals photo
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(BY BEN SCHMITT, DAVID ASHENFELTER and JOE SWICKARD
DETROIT FREE PRESS STAFF WRITERS) - They came from all over the world to see him -- Africa, Europe, Asia and from across the United States.

All jammed into a small courtroom in U.S. District Court in Detroit to get a look at the terrorism suspect accused of trying to bring down a packed jetliner with a homemade bomb in the name of al-Qaida on Dec. 25.

What they saw looked like a small, soft-spoken, schoolboy wearing an oversized white T-shirt and baggy khakis. His expression was unremarkable. His demeanor, polite.

His childlike appearance stunned the mother of one of his would-be victims.

"He is so young and petite," said Neveen Aref, mother of Northwest Flight 253 passenger Hebba Aref.

Legal experts said Friday's arraignment is likely to be Abdulmutallab's last public appearance for some time as prosecutors and his defense team hunker down for long legal maneuvering that could decide his fate.

At the courthouse

As he was being whisked from a federal courtroom in Detroit by U.S. Marshals following his 3-minute arraignment Friday, Abdulmutallab looked over his shoulder.

If he was looking for family members or friendly faces, he had to search hard -- one woman inside, who had flown in from Nigeria, identified herself as a lawyer for his parents.

Standing in court, shackled at the ankles and speaking in barely audible tones, Abdulmutallab faced a judge.

Abdulmutallab spelled his name and told U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Randon that he understood the charges levied against him by a grand jury in a six-count indictment.

Randon repeatedly questioned Abdulmutallab to ensure he understood the proceedings and the charges against him and to ensure that his lawyer consented to his continued detention at a federal prison in Milan, near Ann Arbor.

Among the questions asked by the magistrate was whether the suspect had taken any kind of medication in the past 24 hours.

Abdulmutallab -- who suffered severe burns to his body in his alleged attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 and the nearly 300 passengers and crew aboard as it made its way to Detroit from the Netherlands -- responded: "In the last 24 hours? Some painkillers."

The 23-year-old Nigerian national was flanked by his lawyer, Federal Defender Miriam Siefer. He wore white socks and blue canvas slip-on shoes.

Abdulmutallab, a self-professed al-Qaida operative, looked physically fit in his brief court appearance, though he walked with a slight limp. He was barely taller than Siefer, who stands at 5-feet-2.

Siefer informed the court that their client would stand mute -- meaning he did not plead guilty or not guilty. But a plea of not guilty was entered on his behalf by the court, which is routine at the outset of most federal criminal cases.

After the arraignment, Siefer declined to speak at length, saying: "This is just the first step in a very long process."

However, she scotched rumors that a new legal team was going to take over the case.

"Who represents him? We do," she said.

Siefer said she met with her client for about 45 minutes before the arraignment. Abdulmutallab faces life in prison for the most serious charge of trying to detonate a weapon of mass destruction. Authorities say the weapon was a homemade bomb hidden in his underwear.

The defense team is expected to file various motions to get documents and other evidence from the government to learn more about the case being built against Abdulmutallab.

"This case is going to take months," said criminal lawyer James Thomas, who represented one of four North African immigrants in a 2003 terror trial in Detroit.

"There are so many agencies -- with initials you know and initials you don't -- involved in a case that transcends territorial boundaries," Thomas said.

With evidence being gathered in Yemen, Nigeria, the Netherlands and elsewhere, he said it will take months to digest, declassify and share with the defense team. There will be legal skirmishes.

Once the defense digs into the evidence, it must decide whether to go to trial or negotiate a plea deal for Abdulmutallab, who faces up to life plus 90 years in prison on charges of trying to blow up the airliner.

Legal experts say that, given the reported admissions he made to people on the plane and to investigators on the ground in Detroit, his case is unlikely to go to trial.

Hebba Aref, 27, who is from Bloomfield Hills but lives in Kuwait where she is a corporate attorney, was on Northwest Flight 253 on Dec. 25 -- seated six rows in front of Abdulmutallab. And she was seated behind him in the federal courthouse today.

"It was strange, not frightening, to see Abdulmutallab in court today," she said. "I felt something in my stomach and in my heart. At the time of the incident, he was completely blank. This time, he was talking."

Describing the failed bombing attempt, she said someone yelled, "Fire!" and "I saw a flash."

Aref, who attended the hearing with her parents, was escorted to one of the front rows in the courtroom. She said she was satisfied with the charges against Abdulmutallab.

"This person has changed my life and the way things are done in the United States," she said. "I just wanted to see who this person was again."

A woman who was escorted out of the courtroom by security officers was swarmed by a crowd of news media spectators and protesters who mistakenly believed her to be the mother of Abdulmutallab.

Dave Alwatan, 36, of Dearborn Heights shouted at her: "Shame on you! ... Shame on you for how you raised your kids."

As she left, the woman was asked repeatedly by the news media about the case, but she wouldn't comment.

Earlier, the woman told reporters inside the courthouse that her name was Maryam Uwais, and she was an attorney from Nigeria appearing in court on behalf of Abdulmutallab's parents.

"The family asked us to be here," said Uwais, who confirmed she flew from Nigeria for today's arraignment. A lawyer accompanying her, Mahmud Kazaure, said he lives and practices law in the United States.

The day concluded with the Detroit police bomb squad shutting down Fort Street between Shelby and Washington Boulevard after a suspicious package was discovered.

A U.S. Marshals Service employee noticed an envelope placed on the ledge of a ground floor window of the federal courthouse on the Fort Street side.

Twenty minutes later, Detroit Police Inspector Don Johnson said an unidentified woman embarrassingly told police she was smoking a cigarette near the window and accidentally left the envelope there, touching off the scare.

Johnson said the woman was very apologetic.

Contact BEN SCHMITT: 313-223-4296 or bcschmitt@freepress.com. Free Press staff writer Niraj Warikoo contributed to this report.

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