Bin Laden followers jailed for bombing US embassies

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A judge in New York passed life sentences on four followers of Osama bin Laden yesterday, six months after they were convicted of joining a conspiracy to harm to Americans that included the bombing of two United States embassies in East Africa in 1998.

The hearing in a lower Manhattan courtroom was heavy with symbolic and emotional significance. It took place just a few blocks from the ruins of the World Trade Centre destroyed in the 11 September attack believed to have been orchestrated by Mr bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida terrorist network.

It is the first time that known members of al-Qa'ida have faced justice on American soil. The trial itself, which finished in May, attracted only scant attention in the US. The events of last month, however, changed that. Yesterday's hearing took place amid unprecedented security, with the courthouse surrounded by armed marshals with bomb-sniffing dogs.

Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, 28, was the first to be sentenced for his part in the attacks in August 1998 on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. He and Mohamed Rashed Al-'Owhali, 24, were sentenced to life without parole for direct involvement in the bombings. The original jury was unable to agree on death sentences for both these men.

Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, 36, of Jordan, received the same sentence on a slightly less grave conspiracy conviction. In a chilling moment that gave explicit illustration to the link between the men and Mr bin Laden, a defence lawyer, Ed Wilford, bluntly asserted that Odeh "was a soldier in the military wing of al-Qa'ida". He said the attack, in Odeh's view, was an attack against the US for its support of Israel.

Wadih El-Hage, a former personal secretary to Mr bin laden, was at his home in Texas at the time of the bombings. He was convicted of helping to set up al-Qa'ida's front businesses after Mr bin Laden moved its base to Sudan in 1991. He was also convicted of helping to establish al-Qa'ida's terrorist cell in Nairobi.

The US authorities will be relieved to get the four men out of the detention centre in Manhattan which has been housing them and into high security facilities. They appeared in court yesterday in leg irons and with their wrists shackled to their waists.

For the relatives of the victims of the bombings, there was some consolation in the knowledge that the four faced life sentences without hope of parole. "Let them die conscious of ther fact that their souls will be condemned forever," said Howard Kavaler, whose wife died in the attack on the Kenyan embassy.

Susan Hirsch, whose husband Jamal, a Muslim, died in the bombing of the Tanzanian embassy, said the defendants were giving the world a distorted view of Islam . "There's nothing you could do to these individuals that would soothe the sorrow that haunts me,'' she told Judge Leonard Sand before urging him to impose life sentences.