No place for prejudice in terror case, judge tells potential jurors

POTENTIAL jurors in a terror trial due to open next week have been warned by a Supreme Court judge that they should excuse themselves from jury duty if they were prejudiced against Muslims.
Justice Bernard Bongiorno is presiding over the trial of Abdul Nacer Benbrika and 11 other Melbourne men accused of terrorist activities. The men were arraigned yesterday before a jury of 10 women and five men. All the defendants pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The trial is tipped to be one of Victoria’s longest and most complex, with an extra-large jury of 15 empanelled to sit for between six and nine months.
Nearly 1200 Victorians were called as potential jurors in the case over four days last week, as it was expected that many would need to be excused because of the length of the trial.
Justice Bongiorno told them the Crown alleged the defendants were members of a terrorist organisation.
He said: “All the accused in this case are Muslims . . . There are people in our community who hold and sometimes express attitudes which might be regarded as hostile to or discriminatory towards Muslims simply because they are Muslims.
“Let me say this to you very clearly: there is no place for such a person on a jury in this case. No place whatsoever.”
Justice Bongiorno told them if they could not be impartial, they should ask to be excused from jury duty.
“For a juror to judge an accused person not by reference solely to the evidence against him, but because of who he is, would be wicked indeed,” he warned.
Justice Bongiorno said a small part of the evidence could be “quite confronting” for some people, as it would graphically depict the killing of people overseas. But, he said, “An ordinary adult should not be unduly disturbed by this material and should be able to examine it in an intellectual, and not an emotional, way.”
To accommodate the large jury pools, Justice Bongiorno had to take the unusual step of declaring a separate room to be part of his courtroom.
He introduced himself in person to each pool of more than 200 would-be jurors – “so that you believe I’m real and not some digital concoction that you will see on the screen” – but then he returned to the main courtroom to conduct the rest of the proceedings via videolink from the bench.
The accused and lawyers watched on large video screens as potential jurors stood one by one to accept their place in the pool or to ask to be excused. Potential jurors could see and hear the judge through the video-link in their pool-room.
The potential jurors were asked to read a list of 700 names of witnesses and other people who might be mentioned in proceedings to check that they did not know well any of those involved.
Although it is a Supreme Court proceeding, the trial is being held in the County Court building because it has more room.
Even this courtroom has had to be reconfigured to allow for a second bar table and extra shelving in order to accommodate the 17 barristers, their instructing solicitors and a wealth of documents.
Computer screens have been installed on the bar tables for lawyers to watch visual evidence and transcripts, and extra flat screens have been attached to the walls of the court.
Yesterday morning, after four days of whittling, 256 people were left in the pool of potential jurors. A large pool was needed because each defendant could challenge four candidates, and the prosecution also had the right to stand aside 48 candidates.
They were brought into the courtroom in groups of 30. When candidate number 59 made it to the jury box unchallenged, the trial had its 15 jurors.
Justice Bongiorno warned them strongly against being influenced by media reports or trying to do their own research on topics linked to the trial. “You must not start reading about Islam or Muslims or terrorism or anything of that nature. You must not go to the internet and seek any information. The information that you have to decide this case will be given to you in this courtroom. I can’t emphasise this more strongly.
“These men have to be tried on the evidence that is led against them, not on some other evidence or on some other notion or some other idea that comes from somewhere else, no matter where it comes from and no matter how reputable its source. Whether it’s the Prime Minister or the Archbishop or whoever it is from the outside, it is not the evidence in this case.”
The trial has been adjourned to Wednesday, when the prosecution is due to open its case.
Abdul Nacer Benbrika, 47, Dallas
Shane Kent, 31, Meadow Heights
Majed Raad, 23, Coburg
Abdullah Merhi, 22, Fawkner
Aimen Joud, 23, Hoppers Crossing
Ahmed Raad, 24, Fawkner
Fadl Sayadi, 28, Coburg
Ezzit Raad, 26, Preston
Hany Taha, 33, Hadfield
Shoue Hammoud, 28, Hadfield
Bassam Raad, 26, Brunswick
Amer Haddara, 28, Yarraville
Intentionally being members of a terrorist organisation involved in the fostering or preparation of a terrorist act. The alleged act or threat would have involved the detonation of an explosive or use of weapons in pursuit of violent jihad, with the intention of coercing or intimidating the Government or the public.
Not guilty.
·First published in The Age.