Albany Times-Union : Terror suspect wants own trial

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Terror suspect wants own trial

Albany pizza shop owner says case against imam hurts his chance with jurors

By BRENDAN LYONS, Staff writer | December 10, 2005

ALBANY -- A pizza shop owner who was ensnared in an FBI counterterrorism sting has requested a separate trial from his co-defendant, Yassin M. Aref, arguing that government allegations linking Aref to Middle Eastern terrorist figures would prejudice a jury.

In a 64-page motion filed late Friday in U.S. District Court, Mohammed M. Hossain, a Bangladesh immigrant who has lived in Albany for more than two decades, also asked a federal judge to dismiss the case against him, claiming he was coerced into taking part in a money laundering scheme by an overzealous informant for the FBI.

Hossain's attorney, Kevin Luibrand, declined comment on the motion. The motion is a two-pronged tactical move that is apparently intended to distance Hossain from Aref, whom federal authorities have admitted was the "ultimate target" of their lengthy sting operation.

"The severance motion is rarely granted and the fact is he's accused of conspiring with the other guy," said Donald T. Kinsella, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Albany. "If he's accused of conspiring with him, it's unlikely the court is going to make the government go through two trials with the same proof."

Aref, 35, is an Iraqi-born religious scholar who was hired as imam at the Masjid As Salam mosque on Central Avenue soon after he arrived in the United States six years ago. Aref and Hossain had been free on bond while their case is pending, but Aref's freedom was revoked by a federal judge on Sept. 30 when federal prosecutors filed a superseding indictment that contained allegations of Aref's past ties to terrorist organizations.

Aref's attorney, Terence L. Kindlon, has disputed the government's claims, calling them "artfully woven" and based on journal entries about people Aref met while he was a young, displaced Iraqi refugee living in the Middle East. Kindlon said Aref had met many people in his travels, including men who were connected to terrorism. But meeting them does not mean Aref supported what they were doing, Kindlon has said.

Meanwhile, Luibrand, in seeking to bolster his motion on the entrapment defense, has attacked the government's claim that Hossain was "predisposed" to become involved in a crime supporting terrorism. He said their assertion is based on the fact Hossain didn't report income he made from tips while delivering pizzas, and because he had tried to help his brother, who is mentally retarded, obtain a state identification card with the help of the FBI's informant.

Luibrand argues Hossain is heard on FBI tapes telling the informant he did not believe it was illegal to hide his tip income from the Internal Revenue Service because he did not declare deductions for the wear on his car. He also believed it was not illegal for his brother to obtain a non-driver identification card, according to the motion.

At one point, the informant can be heard telling Hossain that what they are doing to get his brother an ID is "not illegal." The informant's role in obtaining the ID was to serve as an interpreter for Hossain's brother, according to court records.

Still, it's clear in Luibrand's motion he is concerned about the regarding Aref's background, and he contends a jury could be poisoned if government prosecutors begin talking about "jihads" and "religious wars."

"The alleged 'bad acts' of defendant Aref all have alleged 'terrorist' messages in language and action, and will have an unavoidable 'spillover' effect upon defendant Hossain," the motion said.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the FBI has reshaped its mission with a focus on counterterrorism. But many of their sting cases, usually involving enlisting Middle Eastern informants to penetrate mosques and other Muslim circles in search of people who might support terrorism, have been controversial.

The Albany-based sting began in July 2003 when the FBI sent an undercover informant, who is a Pakistani immigrant and Muslim, into Hossain's pizza shop with the intention of luring the men into a plot to make money from the sale of missile launchers to terrorists.

Aref was not approached by the informant. Rather, he was enlisted by Hossain to witness the transactions under Muslim tradition, according to court records.

Aref and Hossain were arrested Aug. 5, 2004, on a 19-count indictment charging them with money laundering in connection with a plot to sell grenade launchers to terrorists. The government has since added more charges, including allegations the men conspired to provide material support to a Pakistani terrorist group, although the support was in the form of taking part in the FBI sting. There was never any real terrorist plot.

No evidence connects Hossain to terrorism other than his alleged participation in the FBI sting, and Hossain remains free on $250,000 bond.

Federal prosecutors have targeted Aref's background in their criminal case, meticulously retracing his Middle East contacts, telephone records and personal journal writings.

The FBI claims entries in Aref's personal journals, seized 16 months ago during raids at his mosque and home, link him to Mullah Krekar, founder of Ansar al-Islam, a violent terrorist group that U.S. authorities contend has ties to al-Qaida and has been responsible for much of the attacks on coalition forces.

The journals also show Aref allegedly met in Syria with a top official with Hamas, another group designated a terrorist organization by the Department of State, according to the government.

If convicted on all counts, both face sentences of more than 400 years.