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Terror Suspects to Stay in Hong Kong

Magistrate puts off until January extradition hearing of three men indicted in San Diego.

November 16, 2002|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

HONG KONG — Two Pakistani nationals and a U.S. citizen who are fighting extradition to the United States on terrorism-related charges won a brief reprieve in a local court Friday but are expected to face a full hearing in early January.

The men -- Syed Mustajab Shah, 54; Muhammed Abid Afridi, believed to be in his 20s; and a 57-year-old naturalized American named Ilyas Ali -- were indicted by a San Diego grand jury recently in connection with allegations that they tried to buy four U.S.-made Stinger missiles to resell to members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

They were arrested in a sting operation in September after allegedly trying to set up the deal during a meeting at a central Hong Kong hotel with FBI agents posing as arms dealers. The three purportedly offered the agents 1,320 pounds of heroin and 5 tons of hashish in return for the missiles and an undetermined amount of cash.

According to the indictment, they told the agents that they planned to sell the missiles to members of the Taliban movement from Afghanistan, many of whom evaded the U.S.-led military sweep through that country last year and are now believed to be in the wild mountainous regions that divide it from Pakistan. The Taliban and Al Qaeda worked closely during the former's years in power in Afghanistan, and remnants of both are believed to still cooperate.

The three suspects had initially agreed to be returned to the United States to face charges of drug peddling but then resisted when the terrorism charge was added this month. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft reportedly discussed the case with Hong Kong authorities during a brief visit to the region last month.

Evidence for the extradition provided by U.S. authorities is said to include several audio recordings and videotapes of meetings in both Hong Kong and the United States. Magistrate Ian Candy set Jan. 6 as a provisional date for the hearing, pending a review of the evidence by the defense.

The evidence was received from the United States only late Thursday.

During Friday's court proceedings, Hong Kong Justice Department prosecutor Wayne Walsh -- in effect representing the United States in the case -- expressed concern about a possible leak to the media of tapes that had been given to the defense.

"They could be used to compromise undercover agents used in this case and other ongoing operations," Walsh told the court.

The three men, wearing civilian clothes rather than prison garb, stood behind a steel-bar barrier along one side of the courtroom and followed the proceedings through an Urdu-language interpreter.

The hearing was the first in Hong Kong involving suspected Islamic terrorists since the Sept. 11 attacks.

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