The trial of Ahmed Ferhani, a 26-year- old Algerian from Whitestone charged with plotting to bomb an unspecified synagogue, seems to allude to more than merely determining his guilt or his innocence.
In Tuesday’s hearing on Ferhani’s case in the State Supreme Court in Manhattan, the three-hour trial didn’t bring anything new to the table, but it revealed the political stakes at play.
Ferhani and his alleged co-conspiretor 20-year old Mohamed Mamdouh, also of Whitestone, were arrested last year on May 11 while purchasing two operable semi-automatic pistols, a revolver, ammunition and one inert grenade from an undercover cop who had befriended the two. According to prosecutors, the agent had recorded the men talking about attacking a synagogue to allegedly avenge what the men expressed as mistreatment of Muslims around the world.
Ferhani’s lawyers say the hate speech and weapons deal were instigated by the agent.
The FBI typically handles terror-related cases, and according to a Wall Street Journal source, NYPD detectives did bring the case to members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. They decided not to take part concerned that the substance of the case, was too weak.
The NYPD instead brought the case to the state level. Here anti-terror legislation allowed state prosecutors to charge Ferhani with conspiracy, even if he was acting with an informant.
Last June, a state grand jury declined to indict Ferhani and Mamdouh for high-level terror conspiracy — a charge that could lead to life in prison without parole. Instead they were indicted on lesser state terrorism and hate crime charges, which could give them up to 32 years.
On Tuesday, Ferhani’s lawyers were back in court, but this time at a hearing before Justice Michael Obus, where Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. again advocated to convict Ferhani with terror conspiracy.
With the recent probe into NYPD’s counterterrorism program, which has caused anger and criticism among Muslim communities and civil rights activists, the Ferhani case seems to have grown in importance for all parties involved.
On one side is the Ferhani defense, a legal team of civil rights attorneys, and their support base, the critics of NYPD’s surveillance program. The lawyers point to Ferhani’s case as “a classic entrapment,” and “a politically motivated prosecution.” Activists had been calling for a rally outside the court house to “protest against NYPD surveillance and entrapment,” but few showed up.
On the other side, Vance needs Ferhani’s case to show that the criticism of the surveillance program is unjust. For the D.A, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg, Ferhani’ is the latest of the cases that are exactly what the surveillance program is made to catch.
Meanwhile, Ferhani sat in his orange jumpsuit and white sneakers with a clean-shaven head and a goatee and followed the play-out between the two legal teams.
Attorney Elizabeth Fink, who 40 years ago had 21 Black Panters acquitted in a somewhat similar case, didn’t seem to question her client’s criminal potential, but insisted that his crimes only amount to ordinary street crime and should be punished accordingly.
“This guy is mentally ill, has a criminal record, is a drug addict, and has serious problems,” said Fink, pointing to Ferhani. “We are going to prove that this is an entrapment case and that agents have infiltrated Muslim communities for years.”
The prosecutors had no doubt that Ferhani intended to carry out his plans. “He discussed at length repeatedly, why and how he would place the bomb and he conspired with intent to damage property,” said prosecutor Margareth Gandy, calling such an act arson in the third degree.
She also said he was motivated by a long-term plan “to intimidate Jews and non-Muslims,” and added that according to audio recordings, Ferhani has called Jews “rats” and Christians “pathetic.”
So far, the prosecutors have only shared little of the alleged evidence with the court. “We have seen nothing; no records from the undercover, no reports,” a visibly upset Fink exclaimed in the court.
Obus ruled that the prosecuting team will have to present a transcript of the recordings and reports to the defense team. The next hearing is held on May 15.
A new Quinnipiac University poll this week found that 58 percent of New York City voters surveyed believe the NYPD has treated Muslims fairly, while 29 percent think police were unfair, and 13 percent didn’t know or had no answer.