Curtain falls as Miami terrorism trial starts up

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MIAMI, Sep 18 (Reuters) The Miami trial of seven men accused of plotting to blow up US government and commercial buildings opened today with the removal of a waist-high curtain designed to hide the suspected terrorists' leg shackles.

US District Judge Joan Lenard said she had ordered the red curtain erected around the defense side of the courtroom because she felt the sight of chains would compromise the defendants' right to be presumed innocent by jurors.

Federal marshals took it down after defence lawyers argued that the curtain was more prejudicial than any glimpse of the slender ankle chains, which were not visible to spectators until the defendants walked out after the jury candidates left the courtroom.

''I think it emphasizes that we're really dangerous,'' Narseal Batiste, the alleged ringleader, replied when the judge asked if he wanted the red curtain.

That set the stage for jury selection to begin in the trial of the seven men arrested in 2006 on charges of plotting to blow up the 110-story Sears Tower in Chicago -- the tallest building in the United States -- and other buildings, including the FBI office in Miami and the federal court complex where they are on trial.

They face up to 70 years in prison if convicted on all four counts of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, conspiracy to destroy buildings with explosives and seditious conspiracy.

The ''Liberty City Seven,'' named for the poor Miami neighborhood where the young men lived on and off at a warehouse, are accused of swearing allegiance to al Qaeda and plotting to wage war on the U.S. government.

Government officials called their June 2006 arrests an important victory in the war against terrorism and the indictment says they aspired to carry out attacks ''just as good or greater than 9/11.'' But Deputy FBI Director John Pistole said at the time of their arrest that their plans were ''aspirational rather than operational.'' Other government agents said they posed no real threat because they had no actual al Qaeda contacts or means of carrying out attacks and no weapons other than a cosh found in one man's car.

Defence attorneys say the defendants were manipulated by paid FBI informants who concocted the plot and did most of the talking in secretly recorded conversations. One informant posed as an al Qaeda agent and accompanied the defendants on a trip to photograph targeted buildings, apparently providing the camera.

Several defendants worked at a construction company Batiste ran and joined his efforts to establish a ''Moorish Science Temple'' sect that mixed Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Freemasonry, Gnosticism and Taoism.

An FBI agent testified in pretrial hearings that they studied martial arts and trained with paintball guns. The first three dozen jury candidates were asked if they had any paintball experience.

One former policeman said he had trained with paintballs while on the force. Another man said his son played paintball at birthday parties. Another jury candidate turned to her neighbor and whispered ''what?'' when the judge asked if they had ever ''gone paintballing.'' Jury selection was expected to take about two weeks in a trial that could last into January.

REUTERS SR AS2324

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