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Judges convict 15 in terror conspiracy

AMMAN, Jordan -- A Jordanian described as the mastermind of an Al Qaeda cell shouted ''You will be punished on doomsday!" at military judges who convicted him yesterday along with 14 fugitives in a terror conspiracy targeting American and Israeli interests in this key US ally.

''Oh man, all these charges were false!" railed Ahmad Mahmoud Saleh al-Riyati after being found guilty in State Security Court of leading the terror cell linked to the Al Qaeda and Ansar Al Islam groups.

Riyati, 34, the only defendant in custody, initially was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, but the presiding judge, Colonel Fawaz Buqour, quickly reduced the term to 7 years.

The bearded Riyati, whose feet were shackled together, suggested to reporters hewas prosecuted to please the Bush administration.

He said Jordanian intelligence ''hatched this conspiracy against me and I was tried for something nonsensical so that [President] Bush will be pleased with Jordan," a common assertion among terror suspects who allege the kingdom is trying to boost its standing with the United States.

He had denied involvement in any terror conspiracies at the beginning of the trial in October, and his lawyer said he planned to appeal.

Eight of the other 14 defendants were given 15 years of hard labor, including Ansar's spiritual leader, Najm al-Din Faraj Ahmad, an Iraqi better known as Mullah Krekar. He lives as a refugee in Norway, which had rejected a Jordanian request for his extradition to face earlier charges of heroin smuggling. On Tuesday, the Norwegian national prosecutor dropped terrorism charges against Krekar, partly because a key witness's testimony in Iraq may have been tainted by torture.

The Jordanian court also convicted the remaining six defendants, then dropped the cases against them, saying they had died -- a standard procedure in Jordanian courts so the conviction can stand if evidence later emerges that they are alive. The court did not say how they died, but military prosecution sources have said they were killed battling American forces in Iraq.

Buqour said Riyati was the cell mastermind whom Al Qaeda recruited six years ago through one of its agents, Raed Hijazi. The Jordanian-born Hijazi, who is a naturalized American citizen, was arrested in Syria in 2000 and extradited to Jordan, where he was sentenced to death for a foiled Al Qaeda terror conspiracy during 1999 New Year's celebrations in the kingdom.

Riyati was being groomed for the millennium conspiracy through training in Afghanistan on ''manufacturing and mixing explosives and poisons," the indictment said. It said Riyati remained in Afghanistan when the plot was uncovered and many cell members arrested in Jordan.

Late in 1999, he joined a group run by top Al Qaeda lieutenant Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, Buqour said. In the following years, he said, Riyati traveled to Iran, where he allegedly recruited the 14 others to his cell, and later arrived in Iraq's northern Kurdish areas, where he was arrested during the United States-led war in March last year. He was extradited to Jordan a month later.

The conspiracy to carry out attacks in Jordan was hatched as early as August 2001 in mutual agreement between Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network and Ansar Al Islam, the indictment said.

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