A top Saudi official said yesterday that a terrorism suspect's wife who had been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury would be made available to the FBI in Riyadh if U.S. authorities want to interview her.
The Saudi embassy helped the woman, Maha Marri, return to Saudi Arabia on Nov. 10 even though the grand jury had demanded her testimony and the FBI had confiscated her passport. Her husband, Ali S. Marri, who is in U.S. custody, was indicted last month on charges of lying to the FBI about phone calls to a man in the United Arab Emirates suspected of managing a bank account used by the terrorists who staged the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Three days after the last contact between federal prosecutors and a lawyer representing Maha Marri, the Saudi embassy provided her and her five children with travel documents and helped them leave the United States, diplomatic and law enforcement sources said. The action angered law enforcement officials and surprised the State Department, which had previously refused to press the FBI to return Maha Marri's passport to her.
"She won't come back to the U.S.," Ahmed Kattan, deputy chief of the Saudi mission in Washington, said in an interview yesterday. If the FBI still wants to interview Maha Marri, he said, "we can assure you she will go to the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh. If she knows some information, she would talk more comfortably in her country. She is ready to answer any questions [they] have," he said.
A government official said interviewing Maha Marri in Riyadh is not as effective as bringing her before a grand jury in the United States.
Maha Marri is a Saudi citizen, and her husband, a native of Saudi Arabia, is a citizen of Qatar. The couple arrived in Peoria, Ill., from Qatar on Sept. 10, 2001.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, intervened in the case last year in an attempt to help Maha Marri leave the United States. On Aug. 30, he wrote to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell asking that Powell use his "good offices" to get the U.S. attorney's office in New York to return Maha Marri's passport. Maha Marri received a grand jury subpoena in December 2001, but her lawyers had sought to prevent her from having to testify.
In the letter, provided by the embassy yesterday, Bandar told Powell that Maha Marri would not testify against her husband and would "assert spousal and other relevant privileges. Indeed, the judicial and societal concerns underlying the spousal privileges are particularly relevant to the case of a Saudi Arabian woman, like Mrs. Marri, given that in Saudi Arabia it would be improper for a wife to speak about her husband in the manner" suggested by prosecutors.
Kattan defended the embassy's decision to send the woman back to Saudi Arabia against the wishes of law enforcement. He said no one from the State Department responded to Bandar's letter.
A State Department official has disputed that account, saying a senior Saudi embassy official was told that the State Department would not return Maha Marri's passport and that the embassy would have to reach an accommodation with law enforcement officials.
Kattan said the FBI kept Maha Marri in this country for 11 months without posing any questions to her. The embassy, he said, supported her during that time, spending $179,974 on lawyers, a small apartment in Falls Church, limousines, drivers, hotel rooms and a living stipend of $3,000 a month.
The embassy also brought Maha Marri's brother to this country to stay with her while she was here, Kattan said.
Kattan said that although Maha Marri would be available for an interview by U.S. authorities in Saudi Arabia, she believes her husband to be innocent. He said he doubts she knows anything that would be relevant to the terrorism investigation.
"She is a naive person," he said.