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Prison Camp Interpreter Had Tickets to Syria

Lawyers say airman accused of spying at Guantanamo was only planning a family trip.

September 27, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Military lawyers for Ahmad I. Al-Halabi, an Air Force interpreter accused of spying on behalf of terrorist detainees at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, acknowledged Friday that he was about to go to Syria when he was arrested this summer.

But they insisted the trip was a family outing and not an attempt to sabotage interrogation efforts at the prison in Cuba.

In their first detailed account previewing Al-Halabi's defense, the lawyers also lashed out at the Air Force for subjecting him to secret military hearings at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and for refusing to let the 24-year-old senior airman speak in Arabic to members of his family. Air Force officials have expressed fear he might be passing on classified information.

The highly unusual defense statement comes as an Air Force general at Al-Halabi's home station, Travis Air Force Base in Northern California, prepares to make a decision on whether to send the young enlistee to a general court-martial. If convicted on charges of espionage and aiding the enemy, he could receive the death penalty.

The case has sharpened concerns about security breaches at Camp Delta, the military prison holding some 660 detainees in Cuba. Along with Al-Halabi, an Army chaplain who ministered to Muslim detainees there is also being held for questioning.

Military investigators said they are widening their probe to determine whether other U.S. personnel at the prison may have compromised security.

The chaplain, Army Capt. James Y. Yee, is being held without charge at the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C.

Al-Halabi was arrested in July after leaving the Guantanamo base, and the Air Force subsequently charged him with 30 criminal counts. It said he had "made contact" with the Syrian embassy and that he was trying to pass on to that country more than 180 written notes from detainees, as well as a map of the fortress and flight paths in and out of Guantanamo Bay.

A subsequent military court hearing, convened mostly in secret, was held last week at Vandenberg, and an examiner's report is being prepared for Brig. Gen. Bradley S. Baker on whether the case should go to court-martial.

Until that decision is reached, the Air Force has released only the charges against Al-Halabi and has declined to discuss other details of the case, citing concerns over classified material at Guantanamo Bay.

But the Syrian government has protested that Al-Halabi was not working on its behalf, and his military defense team -- Maj. James Key III and Maj. Kim E. London, both at Travis Air Force Base -- suggested in a joint statement Friday that their client is not being treated fairly.

"Al-Halabi deserves a fair and public hearing and trial, just like every American is entitled to," they said.

They said his service record describes him as a "star performer for the Air Force," and they noted that he was quickly promoted to senior airman and recognized as "the 60th Supply Squadron Outstanding Airman of the Year for 2001."

"Senior Airman Al-Halabi had just finished a nine-month tour at Guantanamo Bay," they said. "He was on his way back to his home base [Travis] in July 2003 when he was arrested by agents from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations during a layover in Jacksonville, Fla.

"He did have tickets to fly to Syria a few days later out of California, where he was going to meet with his family for a wedding ceremony in Damascus. The wedding had already been postponed because his tour in Cuba had been extended two or three times," the attorneys said.

The Al-Halabi family originally was from Syria, where Ahmad was born. His father told the lawyers that he himself first came to this country 15 years ago "to work as a cook in a restaurant to support his nine children in Syria."

The son followed as the family settled in Detroit, "in search of a good job and an education," the lawyers said. "After completing high school, Senior Airman Al-Halabi joined the Air Force and became a U.S. citizen."

His arrest and incarceration at the brig at Vandenberg has taken a harsh toll on the family, the lawyers said.

"Al-Halabi is doing his best to stay positive ... " they said. "He is under a military order not to communicate in any way in Arabic, which essentially means he cannot talk or write much directly to his father, mother, fiance, or other family members, who speak and write primarily in Arabic.

"It is understandably frustrating for him, but he is following the military order."

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