What can we learn from court testimonies?
by Elias Davidsson, 26 July 2015
In order to assess the fairness of a trial, it is essential to hear what the defendant has to say, and how it was said. Does the defendant deny the charges, express regret, sound aggressive, ask for pity, get entangled in contradictions?
An interesting case is that of Mohammed Junaid Babar who appeared on June 3, 2004 before the United States District Court at the Southern District of New York, charged inter alia by the United States of America with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organisation (see http://www.investigativeproject.org/documents/case_docs/853.pdf). As he made a plea agreement, the court asked him numerous questions, to which he answered either Yes or No. Thereafter, the learned judge said: “Mr. Babar, I would like you to tell me in your own words what you did in connection with the crimes which you’re entering a plea of guilty. Please state when the crimes occurred, where, what happened, and what your involvement in the crimes was. Please begin with the crimes set forth in count one of the information.”
Here is, according to the court transcript, what Babar said (emphasis added):
“Starting the summer of ’03, your Honor, summer of ’03, I — that’s when I first started providing, you know, funding, material support to Al Qaeda, you know, for the war in Afghanistan. And from summer ’03 to about March of ’04, I provided night vision goggles, sleeping bags, water proof socks, water proof ponchos, and money to a high ranking Al Qaeda official in South Waziristan. In summer of ’03, I handed off to someone else, you know, to send it to South Waziristan. Then in January and February ’04, I went myself, personally, to South Waziristan and handed over money to, and supplies to a high ranking Al Qaeda official.”
Thereupon the Court asked him a few questions, to which he answered with a short Yes. He then continued:
“The agreement that I with others was, A, was, you know, concerning people was, A, to provide funding that would — then I would then transport, you know, to, you know, to South Waziristan, Al Qaeda, and also to provide supplies, you know, you know, when I would give them a list of anything that I needed, and they would provide the supplies that I would need that I would then pass over in South Waziristan.”
“I just — I understood that the money and supplies that I had given to al Qaeda was supposed to be used in Afghanistan, you know, against U.S. or International, International Forces or against the Northern Alliance.”
“The activities are basically the same. It was the same. We got together with a couple of people to provide funding and to provide supplies for A1 Qaeda, and we knew what the supplies where, the supplies and weapons were going — what they were going to be used for, and we know who they were going to, and that’s what we did. We got together with people, tried to raise money and supplies and tried to give them to high ranking a1 Qaeda official to be used with the ongoing war inside of Afghanistan.”
“Count three, one of the things that we did was I set up a jihad training camp where those who wanted to go into Afghanistan where they could learn how to use weapons, and also, you know, any explosive devices that they wanted to test out over there. And I also provided lodging and transportation in Pakistan for them, and I transported them to and from the training camp. At the same time, I was aware that some of the people who attended the jihad training camp had ideas about, you know, plotting against some targets in the United Kingdom, and I provided some of the materials, like I mentioned, aluminum nitrate, ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder for them in the use of explosive devices that was then tested out at the training camp.”
“As far as the aluminum powder goes, I knew purchasing aluminum powder, what it was going to be used for, and they had told me, you know, what it would be used for, explosive device, and they wanted to, you know, plot or target some targets in the UK, and I knew purchase of aluminum powder, that’s what I was purchasing it for. And the ammonium nitrate was the same thing. Although I never purchased it, I tried to get it, but at that time I couldn’t get it. So I was able to get the aluminum powder, which I then passed along to them, which I knew where it was going to, what it was going to be used for, eventually.”
“Count four is the same as count three and I — it’s the same. You know, they wanted to set up a jihad training camp, and I provided — I, you know, provided the area and the weapons for them where they can get the training, and also provided some of the materials like aluminum powder and ammonium nitrate for the explosive devices that were used at the training camp. Also same thing, also I purchased aluminum powder, ammonium nitrate knowing it was going to be eventually be used — well, not the nitrate, the aluminum powder I purchased with the knowledge that it was going to be used for a plot somewhere in the UK, and the ammonium nitrate which I tried to purchase but wasn’t able to.”
“Count five is the same as count one and two. I tried to raise money with other people, money and gear which I mentioned before, like night vision goggles, sleeping bags, water proof socks, water proof ponchos and other military gear to then pass it onto a high ranking a1 Qaeda official in South Waziristan. And the timeframe is same with the spring, summer of ’03, up to ’04, March of ’04. And it was sometimes I passed it along to someone else. And in the beginning of ’04 I personally went to South Waziristan and I gave money and gear, the gear I just mentioned, to a high ranking a1 Qaeda official, which I knew was going to be used in the ongoing war in Afghanistan against U. S. and International forces and Northern Alliance in military operations.”
”I understood that it was involved in ongoing military operations within Afghanistan, and also that A1 Qaeda was involved in military organizations outside of Afghanistan, namely, bombings and highjackings and kidnappings outside of Afghanistan, so that’s what I understood that A1 Qaeda was involved in, those kinds of military operations.”
A casual reading of the above text reveals that Babar was not at all reporting real events or personal experience, but repeating terms he learned from the charge sheet and from those who prepared him for the trial. Leaving aside the hesitations, duly transcribed above, a genuine account of personal experience normally includes specifics, such as locations, names, times, and other incidental information that put an action in context. The account here lacks all specifics. It is entirely abstract, smacks of a written report. Note also the repeated use of the word “provided”, a term not used colloquially, or his use of the expression “with the knowledge that”, that is only used in legal texts.
An experienced judge – and defense counsel – would hardly be oblivious to the manifestly bogus account. But perhaps they were not interested in the truth of his account, for Babar was actually working as an informant for the US government. The point here is though not the guilt or innocence of Babar, but the importance of studying testimonies. While in this case, the transcript alone reveals the scam, sometimes court attendance, where body language can be observed, is necessary to gauge whether a witness or defendant spoke the truth. The bottom line is that in order to assess the fairness of criminal trials, particularly where political issues are involved, such as terrorism, it is incumbent to obtain access to verbatim court transcripts and if possible, to audio or video recordings of such proceedings. Any attempts to restrict such access in this type of cases must be regarded as an attempt to corrupt the course of justice.