An attorney for an American student charged in a conspiracy to kill President Bush called yesterday for an independent medical examination, which he contended would show that his client was tortured while in Saudi custody.
The development came as the student, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was arraigned in U.S. District Court in Alexandria and pleaded not guilty. Normally a routine proceeding, the arraignment set off a round of courtroom fireworks that reflected the combative -- and complicated -- nature of the case.
The government says Abu Ali, 23, of Falls Church, confessed to the assassination plot and admitted that he had discussed with al Qaeda plans to conduct a Sept. 11-style terror attack in the United States. Abu Ali's family and attorneys deny the charges, saying that any confession was obtained through torture during his 20 months in Saudi custody. Prosecutors have said the allegations of torture are "an utter fabrication.''
As yesterday's hearing began, defense lawyer Ashraf Nubani immediately proclaimed his intention to seek a medical and psychological examination of Abu Ali.
U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee said that required a written motion and said he would be happy to review such a motion. He then tried to proceed with the arraignment.
Nubani persisted, and he and Lee repeatedly cut each other off. "Can you hear me okay? Are you having trouble hearing?'' Lee said at one point. "What I want you to do is conform with the rules of this court.''
In a written motion filed after the hearing, Nubani stated that Abu Ali has marks on his back that warrant an immediate examination. A spokesman for Abu Ali's family said the marks are five inches long, between his shoulder blades and appear to be from whipping.
After Nubani entered a not-guilty plea on Abu Ali's behalf and requested a jury trial, he and prosecutors clashed over the trial date. Assistant U.S. Attorney David Laufman said federal rules requiring a speedy trial should be waived because of extensive foreign evidence and the amount of classified information that lawyers would have to review.
"Obtaining that evidence will require substantial diplomatic and logistical coordination with the government of Saudi Arabia and other U.S. government agencies,'' Laufman said as he requested an Oct. 3 trial date.
Nubani said he was "baffled" by the request, because Abu Ali spoke to FBI agents and other U.S. government officials after being arrested by the Saudis. "They had 20 months to deal with these issues,'' said Nubani, who requested an earlier trial. "For the government to come now and say they require additional time says nothing to me other than that the government does not have a case and needs time to concoct a case.''
Lee granted the prosecution's request to extend the speedy trial requirements but not as long as the government wanted, setting an Aug. 22 trial date.
Abu Ali is charged with providing material support to al Qaeda, contributing services to al Qaeda and receiving funds from al Qaeda, along with conspiracy. The six-count indictment, unsealed Feb. 22, says he sought to become "a planner of terrorist operations."
An FBI agent testified at a detention hearing March 1 that Abu Ali had admitted while in Saudi custody that he and other members of an al Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia planned to hijack airplanes overseas and crash them into targets in the United States. The conspirators also discussed plans to kill members of Congress, blow up ships in U.S. ports and aircraft at U.S. military bases and free terrorist prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the agent testified.
A federal judge responded by ordering Abu Ali held without bail.
The charges followed a highly public effort by Abu Ali's family to force the government to return him to the United States from the Saudi prison. His parents sued the U.S. government, contending that it had condoned the torture of their son.
Family members insist that the government has no case against Abu Ali. Some law enforcement sources have said that they agree that the case is weak and that the government is divided over how to handle Abu Ali.
But Paul J. McNulty, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, said after yesterday's hearing that the government's case is strong. "We don't sign off on an indictment, we don't go to a grand jury and seek charges, until we think we have enough evidence to prove our case that day, beyond a reasonable doubt,'' he said.
As Lee ended the hearing, Nubani interjected that he had "one final thing.'' He started telling Lee that Abu Ali's parents had been allowed to visit him only once since he returned to the United States.
Lee again told Nubani to file a written motion and immediately ended the hearing.
A spokesman for Abu Ali's family, Shaker Elsayed, said later that Nubani intended to protest the strict restrictions under which Abu Ali is being held. Family members are upset, he said, in part because they are not allowed to speak to Abu Ali by phone. While being held in Saudi Arabia, Abu Ali phoned home every two weeks.
McNulty said the restrictions, known as special administrative measures, are "just standard procedures. They are the same as those used throughout the country in this type of case.''