Judges call for releasing city suspect in visa fraud

Rooming with hijackers doesn't make Al-Shannaq a danger, two courts say

July 11, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Two federal judges in Baltimore rejected government efforts yesterday to detain a Jordanian charged in a large-scale visa fraud probe, saying the fact that he lived briefly with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers did not make him a dangerous suspect.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey said the government had "unfairly" tried to associate Rasmi Al-Shannaq with the terror attacks, and she ordered that he could be released under 24-hour electronic monitoring at his family's home in Southeast Baltimore.

In her ruling, Gauvey said the Sept. 11 attacks had deeply wounded the country, but, "I also believe there's a grievous injury to our country if we don't ... make these decisions based on the facts and the law, and not on rumor and innuendo."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Harvey E. Eisenberg immediately appealed the decision to the trial-level judge who will hear Al-Shannaq's case. After a hastily called, late-afternoon hearing, U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis upheld Gauvey's ruling.

"The idea that a person who was in the company of one of these hijackers - for that reason alone - poses a danger to the community is a stretch that this court is not willing to make," Davis said.

In spite of the two rulings, Al-Shannaq, 27, was not released from jail. The Jordanian citizen will remain in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is holding him on a separate charge of remaining in the United States after his visa expired.

An administrative law judge will determine whether Al-Shannaq can be released on bond in that case. But James Wyda, Maryland's chief federal public defender, said the release order in the fraud case was an important first step.

"This is a nice day for Mr. Al-Shannaq and his family, who have trusted in our justice system," Wyda said outside of court. "They came here today seeking a fair hearing, and they think they got that."

Federal prosecutors could appeal the release order for Al-Shannaq to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., although that would be a rare move. Eisenberg said his office would consider that option.

In court yesterday, for the first time, Eisenberg gave a detailed account of the fraud charge against Al-Shannaq, who has been detained since June 24, when government agents raided his father's house in the 600 block of S. Lehigh St.

Eisenberg said Al-Shannaq was one of 71 people who bought their way into the United States by obtaining fraudulent visas in an illegal scheme tied to the U.S. Embassy in the Persian Gulf country of Qatar.

State Department spokesman Philip Meeker said 31 people have been detained in the tightly guarded investigation code-named Operation Eagle Strike. Authorities still are searching for 29 individuals and say that others have either already left the country or were spouses or minors.

No embassy workers have been charged.

Eisenberg said the recipients of the illegal visas paid $7,000 to $13,000 for the fraudulent paperwork. He said Al-Shannaq, who had tried unsuccessfully four other times to get a visa from his home country of Jordan, paid $10,000 - money his father sent from America believing it was for his son to purchase a car.

In addition to Al-Shannaq, Eisenberg said two other men targeted in the visa fraud probe had also briefly lived with Sept. 11 hijackers Hani Hanjour and Nawaf Alhazmi, who were on board the jetliner that crashed into the Pentagon.

Eisenberg did not name the two other roommates, but he said they were in custody and the government wanted to further explore the connection.

"The coincidence of three of the 70 [visa fraud suspects] living in the same place as two of the 19 [hijackers] is something that is troubling," Eisenberg said in court. "We need to know whether that was innocent - just living with them for a month - or whether it was something more."

Wyda said Al-Shannaq's contacts with the hijackers were pure circumstance, explaining in court that his client briefly stayed in the Northern Virginia apartment with no phone, no television and sparse furnishings at the suggestion of his uncle, who had done some renovation work for the landlord.

"There is no evidence to believe he had any relationship, other than accidental, with those individuals," Wyda said.

Eight people, all friends or relatives, each agreed to sign $50,000 in unsecured bonds for Al-Shannaq's release from jail until his trial on the fraud charge. His family also offered to surrender to the government the titles to six personal vehicles - including an ice cream truck - as collateral for his release.

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