ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The judge in the case of an American student accused of joining Al Qaeda and plotting to assassinate President Bush said Monday he possessed evidence that could help the defendant, but that he couldn't give it to defense lawyers because they lacked required security clearances.
U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee said at a pretrial hearing that he received the classified material from prosecutors, who are required to turn over any evidence that is potentially beneficial to the defense.
Lee told the defense team for Ahmed Omar Abu Ali that "from what I've seen, it's important information and it bears on your defense."
Prosecutors allege that Abu Ali, 24, confessed to joining Al Qaeda in 2002 while studying overseas in Saudi Arabia and that he discussed terrorist plots with Al Qaeda members, including a plan to assassinate the president.
But Abu Ali, of Falls Church, says he gave a false confession after being tortured by Saudi authorities, and says he has the scars on his back to prove it. The U.S. government denies that Abu Ali was mistreated.
One of Abu Ali's defense lawyers, Ashraf Nubani, applied for a security clearance but his request was denied last week. He said he was not given a reason for the denial.
"I wish you would ask the government what the reason was," Nubani said to reporters after Monday's hearing.
The Justice Department did not immediately return phone calls.
The judge suggested at the hearing that he could appoint to the defense team a lawyer with the needed security clearances. But Khurrum Wahid, another of Abu Ali's lawyers, questioned the practicality of such an arrangement, given that any lawyer with clearances would still be unable to share the information with the rest of the defense team.
Lee will hear arguments at a pretrial hearing set for Sept. 19 on Abu Ali's claims that he was tortured into a false confession, and that the Saudi government detained him for nearly two years at the direction of U.S. authorities. If Lee sides with the defense, he could dismiss the case.
Assistant U.S. Atty. David Laufman, meanwhile, said prosecutors may obtain a new indictment against Abu Ali, but that the changes would be minimal and not require a new trial date, currently Oct. 24. Prosecutors often obtain superseding indictments from a grand jury before a case goes to trial.