Six Muslim militants sentenced to death for plotting to attack tourists in Jordan

Six Muslim militants accused of having links with Osama bin Laden were sentenced to death in Jordan yesterday after being found guilty of plotting attacks on American and Israeli tourists during millennium celebrations.

Six Muslim militants accused of having links with Osama bin Laden were sentenced to death in Jordan yesterday after being found guilty of plotting attacks on American and Israeli tourists during millennium celebrations.

Commandos with submachine-guns surrounded the court in the capital, Amman, during the 90-minute public hearing, underscoring the political sensitivity of the case within the Hashemite kingdom. The three-man tribunal also sentenced 16 Muslim militants to prison terms ranging from seven years to life, although some defendants, including four of the six sentenced to die, were convicted in absentia.

The case was watched closely by the Israeli and American governments, which believe that Mr Bin Laden, a millionaire Saudi exile, is the mastermind behind a global Islamic terrorist network. He is held responsible for the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in which 224 died.

Jordanian intelligence and FBI officials believe the group planned to commit New Yearattacks on Mount Nebo, from where Moses is said to have viewed the promised land, and a Christian settlement along the river Jordan, one of several places that purport to be the scene of Christ's baptism. The prosecution said the group had been smuggling weapons into Jordan for the past four years.

In all, prosecutors charged 28 men with 12 crimes, which included manufacturing explosives, using the proceeds from burglaries and cheque frauds to prepare the attacks, andaffiliation with an outlawed group - al-Qaedah, an organisation allegedly led by Mr Bin Laden.

The tribunal acquitted six of the defendants, including a 17-year-old schoolboy, citing lack of evidence.

The death sentences, read out by the presiding judge, Lt-Col Tayel al-Raqad, were interrupted with cries of "Allahu Akbar" - God is great - from the accused as they stood in the dock in dark blue prison uniforms.

All the defendants, most of whom were Palestinians with Jordanian citizenship, denied the charges, and claimed they confessed under duress.

Eight were initially sentenced to hang, but two men had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. A Jordanian Islamist living in Britain, Omar Abu Omar, better known as Abu Kutaida, was sentenced in absentia to 15 years for his alleged role in financing the group.

One of those sentenced to death, Zen al-Abideen Hassan, also known as Abu Zubaydah, is a Palestinian living in Pakistan who is believed to be a key aide to Mr Bin Laden.

The verdicts drew strong protests from the defendants' lawyers, who had produced witnesses to testify that acid, gunpowder and two-way radios that had been seized from the accused were unfit for bomb-making.

"There is a political background behind these sentences," said Jawad Younis, one of the lawyers. "It's to serve the Americans and to prove that Jordan is pursuing what they call terrorists."

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