Friend of Boston bomber suspect goes on trial on obstruction charges

BOSTON (Reuters) - The lawyer for a man charged with obstructing the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing denied on Monday that his client removed a laptop and backpack containing fireworks from the bombing suspect's dorm room three days after the deadly attack.

Defense attorney Nicholas Wooldridge said in his opening statement that Azamat Tazhayakov took nothing except a pair of headphones that were his property when he went to the room of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of helping his brother in the April 15, 2013, blasts.

Tazhayakov is the first of three of Tsarnaev's friends to face trial for hampering the investigation of the bombing and Wooldridge said it was his friend and fellow Kazakh exchange student Dias Kadyrbayev who took the laptop from the room and dropped it in a dumpster. Kadyrbayev is awaiting trial later this year on similar charges.

Prosecutors contend that Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev removed items from Tsarnaev's room at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth at his request after the FBI released photos of Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, as suspects in the bombing, which killed three people and injured 264. "Dias is the one that took that bag back to the apartment, not Azamat," Mr Wooldridge said. "Azamat never touched that bag."

Neither man is charged with a role in the bombing. But prosecutors contended Tazhayakov believed Tsarnaev was the bomber when he went to his dorm room on the night of April 18, 2013. "When they removed all these things, the defendant thought that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was one of the Boston Marathon bombers," Assistant United States Attorney Stephanie Siegmann said in an opening statement. "The defendant and his roommate took all these steps, removing evidence, hiding evidence... for one reason, one reason: to protect their close friend, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev."

Tazhayakov, 20, could face 25 years in prison if convicted of charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy. He has pleaded not guilty.

Tazhayakov was dressed in a black suit and tie and did not speak at the start of his trial in US District Court in Boston.

The authorities said his actions delayed the arrest of Tsarnaev, who is also charged with killing a police officer at about the time the three friends were in his room.

Prosecutors said Tazhayakov, Kadyrbayev and a third friend, Robel Phillipos of Cambridge, Massachusetts, recognized Tsarnaev as one of the suspects in photos the FBI released after the blasts, which were the largest mass-casualty attack on US soil since Sept 11, 2001.

They contacted Tsarnaev, who asked them to go to his dorm room and take anything they wanted. Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, tried to leave Boston that night, with Tamerlan dying after a gun battle with police.

Tsarnaev, 20, is awaiting trial on charges that carry the death penalty if he is convicted.

Phillipos faces the lesser charge of lying to investigators.

Mr Wooldridge urged the jury to remember that Tazhayakov is charged only with obstruction and conspiracy and not focus on emotional reactions to the attack.

"What is this case about? Well I'll tell you what it's not about: The bombing," Mr Wooldridge said. "Don't get shocked and awed. Stay clear and stay focused."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.