Threat of new charges, contested evidence and liberal jury complicate the case
Federal prosecutors may be trying to pressure five Portland Muslims accused of forming an al-Qaida sleeper cell into a plea bargain agreement that eliminates the need for a lengthy, complicated trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Pamala Holsinger told a federal court Wednesday that a grand jury is considering filing new charges against some or all of the defendants, commonly called the Portland Six. One remains at large.
Although Holsinger would not detail the charges, legal sources contacted by the Portland Tribune say the charges could include treason, which is punishable by the death penalty.
'John Walker Lindh was threatened with treason before he pled guilty to lesser charges,' one source said privately.
Lindh is the U.S. citizen who was captured in Afghanistan. He is serving a 20-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to one count of supplying services to the Taliban and a criminal information charge that he carried a rifle and two hand grenades while fighting against the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance.
Civil rights attorney Stanley Cohen says the federal government might want to avoid going to trial in the Portland cases. According to Cohen, Portland has a reputation for liberal jurors who might be opposed to the sweeping war on terrorism.
'If the government loses the case, it would send a clear message that the American people will not tolerate how it is conducting the war on terrorism,' said Cohen, who represents Sheik Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye, the religious leader of the Islamic Center of Portland, also called Masjed As-Saber.
The Portland FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested Kariye on Social Security fraud charges Oct. 24. Although he is not charged with any terrorism counts, several of the defendants worshiped at his mosque.
Judge tries to keep case focused
Holsinger's announcement came during a hearing before U.S. District Judge Robert Jones in the downtown federal courthouse.
All five of the defendants currently in custody attended the hearing. U.S. marshals provided security by standing directly behind each defendant.
Although Jones called the hearing to set the trial date, it delved into many of the complex issues related to what will be one of the first trials to take place under the country's new antiterrorism laws.
The legislation was passed in the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City and Washington, D.C.
By the end of the hourlong session, both sides acknowledged that they face challenges dealing with the vast amount of information Ñ much of it still classified Ñ in the case. They include:
• An ongoing federal grand jury continues to call witnesses related to the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Gorder said new charges would have to be filed soon to be considered at the defendants' trial, currently scheduled for October.
• The grand jury also could indict additional defendants who could introduce new information in the case.
• Defense attorneys have not yet received all of the communications the FBI intercepted during its investigation of the defendants. Although the FBI has declassified 271 'intercepts,' federal prosecutors have asked for additional intercepts to be declassified and provided to both sides. Gorder would not say how many intercepts remain classified or divulge their content.
• The 7,416 pages of documents submitted by prosecutors are straining the resources of some defense attorneys because their clients do not read English well enough to understand and respond to them.
• Some of the defense attorneys said they may need to travel to the Middle East to interview potential witnesses and gather evidence, which could be complicated by a U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Despite these problems, Jones said he hoped that the trial could begin in October.
'The issue is, what was going on with these people as far as their activities,' the judge said. 'We're going to keep this case in focus and not go beyond that.'
By the end of the hearing, four of the five defendants waived their rights to a speedy trial. Jeffrey Leon Battle, Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal, Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal and Patrice Lumumba Ford waived their rights, while the fifth defendant, October Martinique Lewis, is considering asking the court to separate her case from the others and have it tried earlier.
A sixth defendant, Jabis Abdulla Al Saoub, is still at large.
Skilled attorneys come forward
Most Portlanders first learned about the alleged al-Qaida terrorist cell on Oct. 4, when U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the indictments during a nationally televised news conference.
Ashcroft called the development a 'defining day in America's war against terrorism,' claiming that the government has 'neutralized a suspected terrorist cell within our borders.'
The defendants are charged with conspiring to wage war against the United States. According to the indictment, the men tried to reach Afghanistan during the war against the Taliban while Lewis stayed home and wired some of them money.
A group of local lawyers Ñ from the Greater Northwest Defense Association Ñ is trying to ensure that all of the witnesses called before the federal grand jury have access to qualified lawyers. According to member Steve Goldberg, the group has provided lawyers to 12 local Muslims so far.
'What it's doing is making sure that criminal defense attorneys with experience with the federal system are able to give advice to people who need it,' Goldberg said.
Evidence may be contested
Legal experts across the country say the war on terrorism raises complex issues that have yet to be resolved by the courts.
According to the indictment, federal law enforcement agencies monitored e-mail communications and money transfers between the defendants during their travels overseas. The defense attorneys are planning to challenge the legality of this evidence.
John Ransom, Lewis' attorney, told the court the attorneys are preparing a pretrial motion to suppress much of this evidence. The motion will be submitted to the court sometime next week.
Gorder expects some of the motions will concern evidence gathered under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The 1978 federal act created a secret court to authorize investigation into suspected foreign intelligence agents. According to Gorder, the FBI intercepts that have not yet been declassified were approved by the secret court.
'I expect them to be challenged if they're declassified,' Gorder said.