US evangelist resfuses to testify in child sex crimes trial

Evangelist Tony Alamo placed his fate in a federal jury's hands in Arkansas yesterday, choosing not to testify on his own behalf at a trial over charges that he took five young girls across state lines for sex.

The flamboyant minister's legal team rested its case after persuading Alamo that he should not directly challenge testimony that said he "married" the girls while they were underage.

Alamo's lawyers and other defence witnesses said girls travelled for legitimate church business.

US District Judge Harry F. Barnes began delivering jury instructions in advance of closing arguments. Jurors could get the case ON Wednesday afternoon.

Alamo, 74, is named in a 10-count indictment alleging violations of the Mann Act, a century-old law that banned the transportation of underage girls for immoral purposes. State and federal agents raided Alamo's compound last Sept. 20 after growing alarmed at reports of abuse.

Defence lawyers have said the government targeted Alamo because it doesn't like his apocalyptic brand of Christianity.

Alamo has blamed the Vatican for his legal troubles, which include a four-year prison term for tax evasion in the 1990s.

Women ranging from age 17 to 33 told jurors that Alamo "married" them in private ceremonies while they were minors, sometimes giving them wedding rings.

Each detailed trips beyond Arkansas' borders for Alamo's sexual gratification.

With no physical evidence, prosecutors relied on the women's stories to paint an emotional portrait of a charismatic religious leader who controlled every aspect of his subjects' lives. No one obtained food, clothing or transportation without him knowing about it.

"He had control over everything," said a 30-year-old woman from Florida who left the compound after objecting to Alamo's taking an 8-year-old "bride."

At times, men were ordered away from the compound and their spouses kept as another Alamo wife. Minor offences from either gender drew beatings or starvation fasts.

"I felt the strength of the board. I felt it on my leg. I didn't like how it felt," said an 18-year-old who testified that Alamo "married" her at age 8.

The woman considered to be Alamo's common-law wife, Sharon Alamo, said she believed that wedding rings found in the compound were gifts to the ministry.

She said the girls were moved about the country as they worked for Alamo, who has 100-200 followers.

defence witnesses included two women whose currently underage children are being sought by Arkansas child-welfare officials. Neither testified about the children's whereabouts, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Both were served state documents ordering them to surrender the children to the state, which has already removed 36 children from Alamo's compound at Fouke.

But the witness list didn't include Alamo, who at times since the raid has ranted against government agents, calling them anti-Christian, and since his ministry's beginnings in the 1960s has blamed the Vatican for his and the world's problems.

Barnes had ordered a short delay in the trial Wednesday so Alamo's lawyers could discuss with him whether he should testify. Alamo had told reporters he wants to speak with jurors directly, but his legal team has recommended against it.

Before jurors and lawyers arrived for court Wednesday, Alamo took off his tinted glasses for the first time in the courtroom and exchanged them for a pair of thick-glassed clear lenses in a black frame.

He wrote pages and pages of notes and when his defence team entered the room he began slapping the notepad as it rested on the table and told the lawyers, "Well, I am going to get up there."

In large block letters, he wrote "pornography," an apparent reference to child pornography listed in a search warrant for the Sept. 20 raid that was not found.

None has been offered at trial, but a witness said Alamo was "paranoid," used an instant camera to take nude pictures of at least one girl and often cut up photos into small pieces.

Each of the 10 counts against Alamo is punishable by 10 years in prison and a US$250,000 ($387,400) fine.

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