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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Judge Orders Hijackers' Associate to Stand Trial, Denies Bail

Courts: Indonesian is charged with document fraud. U.S. attorney calls his ties to the Sept. 11 terrorists 'very extensive.'

November 30, 2001|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A federal magistrate on Thursday ordered an Indonesian man to stand trial on fraud charges and refused to release him from custody while U.S. authorities continue to investigate his "close ties" to Mohamed Atta and other suspected terrorists.

U.S. Magistrate Theresa Buchanan said there was more than enough evidence to try Agus Budiman on charges of identification document fraud, which allege that he lied about a friend's immigration status to help him get a Virginia driver's license.

While those charges appear to be routine, Buchanan said: "I cannot ignore the events of Sept. 11. The defendant had close ties with the terrorists. . . . He knew of suspected terrorists' hatred of the United States."

Budiman, 31, was ordered held after FBI Special Agent Jesus Gomez testified that Budiman had associated with Atta, an alleged ringleader of the Sept. 11 hijackings, and another suspected participant in the plot, Ramsi Binalshibh.

Law enforcement documents also show that the friend for whom Budiman allegedly committed document fraud, a fellow Indonesian named Mohammad Bin Nasser Belfas, has been linked to Osama bin Laden.

Budiman came to know the alleged terrorists during the eight years he spent in Hamburg, Germany--where Atta, suspected hijacker Marwan Al-Shehhi and others are believed to have hatched the hijacking plot.

In recent weeks, federal authorities have said they suspect that Binalshibh was designated to be the 20th hijacker aboard one of the four planes intentionally crashed on Sept. 11, but that he was denied entry into the United States.

"Mr. Budiman was acquainted with, and associated with, some of the people who were suspected of and actually took part in the Sept. 11 attacks," Gomez testified before a packed courtroom in U.S. district court here.

Gomez offered few specifics of Budiman's connections to the hijackers, except to say that Budiman had helped Atta move from one apartment in Germany to another, and that he had heard Atta and Binalshibh make anti-American remarks.

In addition, Gomez testified, Binalshibh and another of the alleged hijackers, Ziad Samir Jarrah, put Budiman's name and address down as their host on applications to enter the United States.

Budiman came to the United States with Belfas in October 2000, and is in the country illegally because he overstayed his visitor's visa and violated its terms by getting a job, Gomez said.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven Mellin asked the judge to deny Budiman bail, saying he would flee the country because of his ties "to the terrorists."

"This man has an extraordinary amount of connections to these individuals," Mellin said as Budiman sat silently at the defense table, dressed in a green prison jumpsuit. "But at this point in time, we just don't know exactly what is the reason he has those ties."

Mellin said authorities continue to investigate Budiman because his ties to the alleged terrorists "are very extensive, they are suspicious and they are troubling."

Budiman's defense lawyer, Mark Thrash, urged the judge to grant bail, saying the government was unfairly linking his client to accused terrorists through innuendo and speculation.

Even if Atta had told Budiman that the United States was responsible "for all the wars in the world," that didn't mean Budiman agreed with him, Thrash said.

And just because Budiman knew Atta and the others in Hamburg didn't mean he knew anything about their alleged plans to hijack planes and ram them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he added.

"We're using shadows," he told the judge. "It's smoke and mirrors."

Thursday's hearing was a continuation of a proceeding that began Monday.

That session was cut short when Budiman's first court-appointed lawyer withdrew from the case, saying he could not represent anyone suspected of being tied to the hijackers.

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