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Lawyers Seek to Stave Off Military Trial

Defense attorneys for an Air Force interpreter accused of espionage plan to file motions saying prosecutors have failed to make a case.

September 21, 2004|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Attorneys for an Air Force interpreter facing a court-martial on attempted espionage charges launched a final push Monday to stave off a military trial.

Defense lawyers for Senior Airman Ahmad Al Halabi, 25, argued that the Air Force has failed to make a case against him. Al Halabi is accused of trying to pass off classified documents after a stint at the high-security Guantanamo Bay military base housing prisoners from the war on terrorism.

Al Halabi's defense team intends to introduce up to two dozen motions in a bid to get charges dropped or the case dismissed.

"We've said from Day One our client is not a spy, he's not a terrorist, he's not linked to any terrorist groups," said Don Rehkopf, a defense attorney representing Al Halabi, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Syria.

But the attorneys' efforts met with mixed results.The military judge, Col. Barbara Brand, rejected arguments that Al Halabi -- who was arrested in June 2003 and jailed for 10 months before his release in the spring -- was denied his right to a speedy trial.

Brand agreed with prosecutors' arguments that any delays were caused by the complexity of the case.

But behind closed doors, the judge prodded military prosecutors to determine exactly what charges they intend to bring to trial, a decision that will be made by Gen. William Welser III, 18th Air Force commander and officer in charge of Travis Air Force Base.

Welser was meeting late Monday with Air Force attorneys to discuss the case. Defense attorneys held out hope that at least a few of the most serious charges still facing Al Halabi might be dropped when the court-martial reconvenes this morning.

Brand also declared in open court that the defense case was looking "more favorable" heading into trial.

Although Al Halabi initially faced 30 charges of attempted espionage and other serious crimes that could have resulted in the death penalty, the prosecution's case has slowly eroded in the months leading up to trial.

Al Halabi now faces 16 charges, with a maximum penalty of life in prison if found guilty of the most serious offense.

Defense attorney Maj. Kim London argued in court that Air Force prosecutors had failed to make a case after grappling for months to come up with additional evidence against the airman, who sat stoically during an hourlong hearing Monday morning.

"The evidence to support their charges doesn't exist," London said, adding that the Air Force "stubbornly resists the truth" that the case has flopped.

Still unresolved is a dispute over whether any of the documents Al Halabi brought out of Guantanamo qualify as secret.

Military officials initially said all of the documents were classified, but a review conducted earlier this month found that only one meets the qualification. Al Halabi's attorneys remain hopeful they can convince the judge that it does not contain national secrets.

Al Halabi was one of three Muslim men arrested last year on suspicion of playing a role in a reputed spy ring at Guantanamo's Camp Delta, home to more than 600 prisoners believed to be aligned with Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

Military officials in March dropped prosecution of Army Capt. James Y. Yee, a Muslim military chaplain who served more than two months behind bars.

Civilian translator Ahmed Fathy Mehalba has been jailed for nearly a year, his case unresolved.

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