/ 9 January 2010

Shackled Nigerian bomb suspect betrays no emotion

His expression flat, his eyes averted from the gathered crowd, the 23-year-old Nigerian accused of trying to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day hobbled into a Detroit courtroom Friday.

The rote routines of the US justice system could not dampen the tension in the room during Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s four-minute arraignment as he stood quietly while his lawyer entered a not guilty plea.

Reporters craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the fresh-faced son of a prominent Nigerian banker accused of trying to detonate explosives stitched into his underwear as a packed Northwest flight from Amsterdam began its descent into Detroit.

Security in the ornate, marble-floored Theodore Levin Courthouse was tight ahead of Abdulmutallab’s first appearance since he was tackled by passengers and escorted from the plane.

Metal barricades blocked off the street along the austere building, where news crews and a small group of demonstrators stood shivering in the slush as a bitter wind tossed a light dusting of snow down from blue skies.

Inside, two bomb-sniffing golden retrievers and their handlers cautiously combed every corner of the Depression-era courthouse.

Armed federal marshals and local police patrolled the halls and the streets.

Abdulmutallab hobbled into the courtroom in leg irons, his arms swinging at his side, his head shaved and his slight body nearly lost in a loose white T-shirt and beige trousers.

He fidgeted in his chair and whispered to his lawyers, then clutched his left hip as he walked up to the dock to answer a brief series of questions from judge Bernard Friedman.

He spoke quietly as he spelled his name for the record and said “yes I did” and “yes I do” when Friedman asked if he had received the indictment and understood the six charges, which include attempted murder of the 290 people aboard the plane.

When asked whether he had taken any medication in the past 24 hours, Abdulmutallab — who was badly burned and briefly hospitalised after the explosives caught fire — said “24 hours? Yes. Painkillers.”

Then his court-appointed lawyer, Miriam Siefer, stepped up to the microphone.

“At this time, our client would like to enter a plea of not guilty,” she told the judge.

“With respect to bond, we have — with our client’s consent — consented to detention.”

After a few more questions from the judge, Abdulmutallab was escorted from the room which had no view of the circus outside.

A crush of cameras mobbed a woman wearing a black and white headscarf as she left the courthouse.

The woman told reporters inside the building her name was Maryam Uwais and she was an attorney from Nigeria hired by Abdulmutallab’s parents.

The crowd outside was not privy to that exchange. One man, believing she was Abdulmutallab’s mother, shouted “shame on you for how you raised your kids”.

Hebba Aref, who sat six rows behind Abdulmutallab on Northwest Flight 253, sat behind him again on Friday as she watched the proceedings in a heavy wooden courtroom bench.

“It was strange, not frightening to see Abdulmutallab in court,” said Aref (27) a corporate lawyer in Kuwait originally from Michigan.

“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.”

Aref, who is Muslim, said she was glad to see Abdulmutallab prosecuted and called his actions “misuse of a beautiful religion”.

A small group of demonstrators outside waved bright American flags and signs declaring “Not in the name of Islam” and “Islam is against terrorism.”

Moad Taleb, a marketing representative who moved to the Detroit area in 1990 from Yemen, shivered as he spoke of how he was frightened by talk of potential US military strikes against his homeland.

“If there are terrorists, we need to get rid of them, but I have family back home … civilians just trying to live their lives,” said Taleb (28).

Majed Moughni, who moved to Michigan from Lebanon, said he was worried there would be a backlash against Muslims.

“We are here to let the world know we’re going to stand in the cold against terrorism and we hope Americans don’t leave us out in the cold,” said Moughni.

“We’re trying to unite as Muslims and we’re going to eradicate all terrorism from our homes and our mosques and we’re going to send terrorists back to the caves of Afghanistan.” – AFP