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In Wake Of 9-11, Justice Delayed In Terror Probe Of Somalian Student Warsame
The accusations against Mohammed Warsame, a Minneapolis community college student from Somalia, were explosive enough to land him in a Minnesota prison with little contact with the outside world.
But 2 1/2 years after FBI agents took him to a remote National Guard camp in Minnesota, where he allegedly talked of his ties to al-Qaida and the Taliban, no trial has been slated.
It is a situation dozens of men in the country have found themselves in: detained as potential witnesses in terror cases, jailed for weeks or months and, in some cases, charged with crimes themselves.
The liberal American Civil Liberties Union cites the Warsame case in a 103-page critique of such "material witness" cases it released last year. The organization said then that since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at least 70 men have been caught up in such cases in the United States, sometimes kept long beyond their usefulness or charged with what the ACLU considers to be bogus connections to terror networks.
"Five years after Sept. 11, the government has used a variety of legal authorities and claimed authority" to keep the detainees in prison, Ben Wizner, a staff attorney for the ACLU, said Thursday.
Former U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger, who oversaw the case against Warsame before resigning in February, says there is a good reason for the delay: the sensitive nature of the evidence in such terrorism cases. He said there are limits to what evidence the defense can see while lawyers, judges and court personnel must have security clearance to observe evidence, which takes time.
And in Warsame's case, some of the delay comes from motions on the defense side.
The most recent came in November, with a request to suppress statements he allegedly made after he was taken to the National Guard camp at Fort Ripley for questioning. So far, U.S. District Judge John Tunheim has not ruled.
Defense attorneys claim Warsame believed he was under arrest at the camp and hadn't been told of his rights.
"I don't want to call it frustration, because our hope is that by taking so long, the judge realizes that we have a serious argument, and were he to find in favor of us, the case would fall," said Peter Erlinder, a William Mitchell College of Law professor who is helping with Warsame's defense.
Warsame also changed lawyers, a move both Heffelfinger and Warsame's former public defender, Dan Scott, said contributed to the delay.
The Associated Press tried unsuccessfully to speak to Warsame's family, reaching out through a Twin Cities Somali organization that has been in contact with his wife and an uncle.
But defense attorneys and prosecutors who have worked on the case described a slow-moving process that has left the public in the dark while a high-profile terror suspect languishes in prison.
Warsame was initially held as a potential witness for several months in the case of Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent who is the only person in this country to be convicted in the 9-11 attacks, Erlinder said. He was eventually charged with providing material support to al-Qaida, and prosecutors claim he fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan and once sat next to Osama bin Laden at a meal.
Later, a grand jury charged Warsame with lying to the FBI. Prosecutors said he traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001, but told agents he had only traveled to Saudi Arabia and Somalia since 1995.
Warsame pleaded not guilty to providing support for a terrorist organization in February 2004. Since then, he has shifted his defense from the public defender's office in Minneapolis to a team led by Chicago lawyer David Thomas, once an instructor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.
The prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Hollenhorst, said Thursday that he didn't know when the trial would begin, and he declined to say anything more about the case.
Meanwhile, Warsame spends his days under "the most secure" conditions at the state prison in Oak Park Heights, according to Erlinder. He said defense lawyers and some family members visit Warsame, who is "feeling as though he wants to go back to his family and move on."
Erlinder declined to provide details about Warsame's condition, but Scott said Warsame was in solitary confinement when he represented him, getting his news from screen crawls on sports channel ESPN.