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Accused Al Qaeda agent pleads not guilty

Only alleged 'enemy combatant' on U.S. soil was held for six years before being charged as a terrorist.

March 24, 2009|Joel Hood

PEORIA, ILL. — Ali Marri, an alleged Al Qaeda operative held for nearly six years as an "enemy combatant," pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and supporting terrorism Monday.

Marri wore a white shirt, a white kufi, or cap, and khaki pants. He was shackled at the feet. Before the hearing, he quietly conferred with his lawyers, smiling and even laughing once. He spoke little during the half-hour hearing, other than to give his full name and age of 43.

"He's not bitter the way you'd expect somebody to be in his situation," said one of Marri's lawyers, Andrew Savage of Charleston, S.C., where Marri had been held since 2003. "He harbors no ill will, no ill will at all to America."

Savage, who is working the case pro bono, said Marri was relieved to be back in Peoria, where he studied at Bradley University until his arrest on suspicion of credit card fraud and lying to the FBI in late 2001. Initially, he was held in civilian jails.

The federal government contends that Marri met with Osama bin Laden and offered to go on a suicide mission. In 2003, the Bush administration labeled him an enemy combatant and detained him in a South Carolina Navy brig without charge.

The federal government contends that Marri trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, entered the U.S. on Sept. 10, 2001, on a fraudulently obtained student visa, kept in contact with a Sept. 11 mastermind, researched the use of toxins and positioned himself as an Al Qaeda sleeper agent.

U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm set a tentative trial date for May 26 but admitted that probably wasn't realistic.

"I want every effort made to try this case by the end of the year," Mihm said.

Much of the hearing centered on what type of evidence may be presented during discovery. Because some of it probably will be deemed classified, Mihm said his staff was working to get the appropriate security clearance from the Justice Department.

Marri indicated through one of his lawyers, Lee Smith, that he wanted assurance that none of his meetings with lawyers would be recorded with video or audio surveillance. U.S. Atty. David E. Risley said they wouldn't be.

A native of Qatar and father of five, Marri is being kept in solitary confinement at the Federal Correctional Institution in Pekin, Ill., Savage said.

Last month, he was indicted on charges of conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists. If convicted on both counts, he faces up to 30 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

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jhood@tribune.com

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