The suspected chief of Osama bin Laden's European operations went on trial here today with three other Tunisian men charged with providing the false passports that allowed al Qaeda operatives to travel freely across the continent.
Essid Sami Ben Khemais, who authorities say is a high-ranking bin Laden associate known as "the Saber," appeared in court handcuffed and chained to police officers. "I am a practicing Muslim, not a terrorist," a lawyer quoted Ben Khemais as telling the heavily guarded courtroom, which was closed to the public and the media.
The suspects are not accused of direct involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
A verdict in the case could come as soon as Wednesday under a fast-track deal requested by the defense. The procedure allows for a limited amount of evidence to be introduced in a closed-door hearing in exchange for 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 attacks.
Ben Khemais and the three others 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.
Ben Khemais is also suspected of having supervised a plan to attack the U.S. Embassy in Rome in January 2001, 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 four defendants were arrested between April and October last year as part of a joint Italian-German investigation into al Qaeda's European activities.