5 found guilty in Miami of trying to join in terror plot with Al Qaida

MIAMI – A federal jury convicted five men Tuesday of trying to join forces with al-Qaida in a plot to topple Chicago’s Sears Tower and bomb FBI offices.

A sixth man was acquitted.

The verdict allows government prosecutors to claim overall victory in a case that dragged on for years and cost millions of dollars, resulting in two hung juries and the acquittal of a seventh man originally charged in the case.

The convicted defendants–Narseal Batiste, 35; Patrick Abraham, 29; Rothschild Augustin, 25; Burson Augustin, 24 and Stanley Grant Phanor, 33–were immediately taken into custody.

Naudimar Herrera, 25, the sixth defendant, was found not guilty of all charges, setting him free to rebuild his life after two years in prison and standing trial three times.

“It’s not right,” Herrera said through tears outside the courtroom. “They don’t deserve none of this.”

Batiste, who was convicted of four terorrism-related charges–faces up to 70 years in prison for conspiring to support the Islamic extremist group al-Qaida, to support terrorism, to blow up buildings and and to wage war against the government.

Abraham, who was convicted on three charges, faces up to 50 years in prison. He was found not guilty of conspiring to wage war against the United States.

The remaining defendants, convicted of two counts for conspiring to support terrorists, face up to 30 years in prison.

Sentencing was set for July 26. Their lawyers are expected to appeal.

The jury began deliberating April 27. However, U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard replaced two jurors during the process and ordered the final group–a racially-mixed panel of nine women and three men–to restart discussions last week.

Jurors sent a note Tuesday morning signaling they were close to reaching verdicts.

According to prosecutors, the men, led by Batiste, wanted to bring down the U.S. government and sought an alliance with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaida to carry out attacks. Batiste recruited the other defendants as “soldiers” in his terrorist army, prosecutors said.

The group’s aims included blowing up the 110-story Sears Tower, poisoning salt shakers in restaurants and launching terrorist attacks “just as good or greater than 9-11,” prosecutors said.

“None of them cared that what they were doing was putting innocent lives in danger,” fedeal prosecutor Jacqueline Arango said in closing arguments. “What they cared about was providing services — selling their services to a terrorist organization for money.

But defense lawyers argued the men were entrapped by government informants. The group played along with violent talk because the informants would give them money, defense lawyers said.

Evidence in the case showed the men never came close to carrying out any attacks.

Batiste’s lawyer, Ana Jhones, called the case a set-up by government agents who wanted to show progress in the war on terror.

“This is not a terrorism case,” Jhones said in her closing argument. “This is a manufactured crime.”

The defendants worked for a small construction company owned by Batiste and met for religious study in a Liberty City warehouse. They came under investigation when an area convenience store clerk reported to the FBI that Batiste was seeking support from Middle Eastern terrorists.

The FBI had that man introduce Batiste to an undercover informant posing as an al-Qaida financier.

A key piece of evidence in the case was a grainy videotape showing the men swearing an oath of loyalty to al-Qaida. Some of the defendants conducted photo surveillance for a fictional plot to bomb the FBI headquarters in Miami, according to evidence in the case.

Vanessa Blum can be reached at vblum@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4605.


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