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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 January, 2005, 11:09 GMT
Briton faces US missile deal charges
By Laura Trevelyan
BBC News, New Jersey

Hemant Lakhani
Mr Lakhani says he is the victim of an elaborate FBI sting

Is Hemant Lakhani "a true believer in the cause that America should be attacked and that its citizens should be killed" as US prosecutors claim?

Or was the 69-year-old British Hindu businessman, in his own words, "too foolish, too greedy"?

Mr Lakhani is charged with plotting to smuggle surface to air missiles into the US to shoot down airliners.

On Tuesday, in New Jersey, the jury is expected to be selected and Mr Lakhani's trial will then begin in earnest.

The jury must decipher the claims and counter claims of both sides - Mr Lakhani says he is the victim of an elaborate FBI sting, a US court official hailed his arrest as "an incredible triumph in the war against terrorism".

'Refinery project'

Much is at stake here. The US justice department has been accused of boasting about terrorist arrests, then failing to have the evidence to secure a prosecution.

A successful prosecution in this case would boost the Bush administration. While for Mr Lakhani, if convicted, he faces 15 years in jail.

Mr Lakhani says he was living in Hendon, North London, working as a consultant to an oil company trying to get financial backing for an Indian oil refinery project.

Igla missile
Mr Lakhani is accused of trying to sell Igla missiles

He claims a friend told him of an oil executive in Dubai who might be able to help.

Mr Lakhani told the Sunday Telegraph: "I spoke to the man, and he said he had a friend in the United States called Air Haji, who was a financial adviser to the Saudi royal family and could get them to invest the $250m.

"Mr Haji phoned me four of five times, so I agreed to meet him."

Mr Haji was not an adviser to the Saudi royal family - he was a career FBI informant, who met Mr Lakhani in a bugged hotel room with FBI agents recording their conversation.

'Ukrainian contact'

Shortly after 11 September 2001, Mr Haji said he was interested in buying shoulder-fired missiles for an African rebel group, and Mr Lakhani, who says he wanted to please this potential investor, pledged to find them.

In April 2002, the Indian-born Mr Lakhani claims he received a call from the oil executive in Dubai who said he had a Ukrainian contact who could supply the missiles.

Mr Haji excused himself, the FBI stormed the room and Mr Lakhani was arrested

Sergei, the Ukrainian contact, worked for Russian intelligence, or so Mr Lakhani says.

Sergei said he could supply Igla shoulder-fired missiles.

In August 2003, Mr Lakhani and Mr Haji met at Newark in New Jersey to inspect a supposed sample of one of the weapons.

Mr Haji excused himself, the FBI stormed the room and Mr Lakhani was arrested.

The FBI taped 150 of the conversations between the two men.

'No threat'

The tapes apparently show Mr Lakhani saying that Osama Bin Laden did a "good thing" and "straightened them all out".

Now a New Jersey court must decide Mr Lakhani's fate.

Mr Lakhani is meant to have said "the Americans are bastards" and suggested the country would be shaken if 15 airliners were shot down.

The Federal Court prosecutor states: "There is no question that Mr Lakhani was sympathetic to the beliefs of the terrorists who were trying to damage our country.

"He, on many occasions in recorded conversations, referred to Americans as bastards and Osama Bin Laden as a hero."

Lakhani, though, insists he was not a threat to US security, but a greedy businessman unable to say no to the man he thought would finance his oil refinery deal.

Mr Lakhani told the Sunday Telegraph: "I was conned, I was entrapped, I broke the law - but I am no terrorist."

Now a New Jersey court must decide Mr Lakhani's fate.

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