Negotiations for Al Qaeda Suspect to Plead Guilty Underway

Ali al-Marri has served 51/2 years in South Carolina.
Ali al-Marri has served 51/2 years in South Carolina. (Icrc - AP)
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By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009

Prosecutors and lawyers for Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri are engaged in negotiations that could produce a guilty plea by the suspected al-Qaeda associate in a federal courtroom as early as today, according to sources familiar with the talks.

The discussions have ebbed and flowed in recent weeks but the core arrangement would involve a plea by Marri to a single criminal conspiracy charge that would send him to prison for 15 years, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks are not complete.

A plea along those lines would cut by half the prison time Marri is facing under statutory maximum sentences if he was convicted of conspiracy and providing support to al-Qaeda.

Among the most sensitive issues are conditions of Marri's confinement and whether he will win credit for the 5 1/2 years he has served in a South Carolina military brig. Complicating the talks are questions of whether Marri would be incarcerated in the United States or be moved to another country, perhaps his homeland of Qatar, requiring sensitive diplomatic intervention.

The case has been closely watched because Marri was the sole remaining "enemy combatant" held on American soil without criminal charges. U.S. marshals moved him to Peoria, Ill., last month after a grand jury there issued a bare-bones, two-count indictment against him.

In a speech in Germany yesterday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. cited Marri's case as an example of a break from practices of the Bush administration on national security, and an early signal that at least some of the 241 inmates held in a military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be sent to the United States to face trial in courts here. Holder is on an extended European tour this week, meeting with government officials across the continent to seek their help in relocating Guantanamo detainees.

Marri long has been a source of fascination for investigators. He entered the United States one day before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes on a visa he secured to attend graduate school. Military officials later filed a sworn statement allegedly linking Marri to hazardous chemicals and a plot to disrupt the financial system. None of those allegations appeared in the grand jury indictment in February, however, giving rise to questions about the strength of the government's case.

Marri's attorneys are in Peoria this week attempting to negotiate a plea. The possible arrangement could founder, the sources said. For several years, Marri was kept in near isolation in the naval brig, under conditions that prompted a mental deterioration, his lawyers told reporters this year.

Yesterday, his lawyers had no immediate comment on developments in the case. A Justice Department spokesman in Washington declined to comment. Marri is scheduled to appear before U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm for a court hearing in Illinois this afternoon.

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