Syrian-American Pleads Not Guilty to Spying on Dissidentsإقرأ هذا الخبر بالعربية
A Syrian-American pleaded not guilty in U.S. court Friday to charges he spied on anti-Assad protesters and handed recordings to Syrian intelligence in a bid to silence the opposition.
Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, 47, was remanded to custody by U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton, who set a March 5 trial date.
A federal grand jury charged him early this month with six counts including spying in the United States and Syria on activists opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The Leesburg, Virginia man, clad in a green prison jumpsuit, did not speak during the 30-minute hearing just outside Washington, and his attorney entered the not guilty plea.
U.S. prosecutors argued that Soueid represented both a flight risk and a threat to the community, saying he had made threats of reprisals and detailing contacts with a U.S. informant and a Syrian handler in which Soueid allegedly discussed possible violence against dissidents.
After returning from a trip to Syria in July with a delegation that met with Assad, paid for by the Syrian embassy, Soueid allegedly told the U.S. informant there was a "Plan A" and a "Plan B."
Plan A was to continue to collect information against the dissidents, and Plan B was to take action against them, clearly implying the use of violence, according to prosecutors.
"The danger is real, and he does harbor that animosity," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Fitzpatrick.
In a filing earlier this week, prosecutors alleged that Soueid had tried to obtain a fraudulent Venezuelan passport, made arrangements to gain access to an account from Peru, and had obtained a Syrian passport under a name different from any he had previously used.
Moreover, they argued that he had access to the Syrian regime at the highest levels and that an aunt in Paris had previously sent him $200,000 to an account in the name of a used car dealership.
"He has every incentive in the world to leave. Not only does he have the incentive, he has the means," Fitzpatrick told the court.
Defense attorney Haytham Faraj disputed the government's account as based on the word of an informant in the government's pay, insisting that Soueid had a home and family in Virginia and no reason to flee.
"These are normal, benign, everyday conversations that the government is trying to make into something sinister," he said.
The judge questioned whether Soueid posed a threat to the community, but agreed he was a flight risk and ordered him detained until trial.
Soueid was charged with conspiracy and acting as a Syrian government agent in the United States. He was also charged with two counts of providing false statements on a firearms purchase form and two counts of providing false statements to federal law enforcement.
The Syrian embassy has vehemently denied the accusations, chalking them up to a "campaign of distortion and fabrications."
Soueid was said to have ordered individuals to make audio and video recordings of protests in both Syria and the United States, and of conversations with activists that he would then pass on to Syrian intelligence agents.
If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison on the spying charges, 15 years for the firearms charge and 10 years for making false statements to federal investigators.
His trial comes amid escalating tensions between Damascus and Washington over the Syrian government's months-long bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests.