Closed hearing sought for witness

Elbarasse was detained after wife taped bridge

Va. man held in Hamas case

August 27, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes Alec MacGillis and Dan Fesperman | Stephanie Hanes Alec MacGillis and Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

Federal prosecutors have asked a judge to close a detention hearing scheduled for today for Ismail Selim Elbarasse, a Virginia man who is being held in Baltimore as a material witness in a Chicago case involving the militant group Hamas.

An attorney for Elbarasse - who was detained Friday after his wife's videotaping of the Bay Bridge caught the attention of police - said the government is trying to hide from the public its "overreaching" and "rights violations."

"They do this to protect themselves," said the lawyer, Stanley L. Cohen. "They do this because they're afraid the public will get a glimpse of the outrageous conduct the United States government is engaged in against its citizens."

The Sun has asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm, who is scheduled to preside over today's hearing in federal court in Baltimore, for an opportunity to oppose the prosecutors' motion to close it.

Elbarasse is not charged in connection with the videotaping, which occurred while he was driving his family home from what they say was a beach vacation. Nor is he charged in the Chicago case, in which a grand jury named him as an unindicted co-conspirator in an alleged plot to launder money on behalf of Hamas, which the United States has labeled a terrorist organization.

But Elbarasse's status as a material witness in the Hamas case allows the government to hold him and to ask the court to close judicial proceedings and seal documents.

Federal authorities in Baltimore would not comment on the case, explain why they have asked for it to be closed or acknowledge that a hearing is scheduled.

"You'll have to call Chicago," said Vickie LeDuc, a spokeswoman for Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio. "It's their case."

Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago, would not comment. His office has not been willing to confirm that Elbarasse has been arrested.

That Elbarasse's case is being handled primarily, if not exclusively, by the Chicago office underscores what some federal officials have said privately, that his connection to the Hamas case is of far greater concern than the videotaping.

Although authorities said in court papers that they think the bridge was filmed as a potential target for terrorism, they have said nothing further to suggest that the bridge was or is in increased danger.

Elbarasse's family and lawyers have called the videotaping allegations "ludicrous."

Federal authorities said the family videotape included close-up shots of the bridge's support structures, and agents wrote in an affidavit that they thought images of additional "structures" might be on other tapes found in the Elbarasses' car.

The family was returning from three days at the beach in Delaware, said Elbarasse's daughter, Dua'a Elbarasse, during an interview at their Annandale home Wednesday.

They wanted to fill up their vacation videotape and were marveling at the bridge, which they had seen for the first time when they went over it the previous Tuesday, she said.

"The first time we went over the bridge, we thought it was a nice sight," she said, standing on the threshold of the family's two-story house as her siblings and mother stayed out of view behind the door.

She disputed a police suggestion that the family's car had two beach chairs in it and no other beach gear. "It was completely packed up, filled with stuff," she said. "We had food, lawn chairs, quilts, bedspreads."

She said she didn't know what police were referring to when they said the family had videotapes of "structures" besides the Bay Bridge.

As for police claims that the bridge footage consisted of structural close-ups rather than long-view shots of the water, she said that was easily explained. The car was in the right lane of the bridge, and when her mother pointed the camera toward the water, "the cables got in the way," she said. "You can't avoid getting [the bridge] in the picture."

Federal authorities became involved Friday after being alerted by Maryland Transportation Authority Police. At some point, the authorities decided Elbarasse should be held as a material witness in the Chicago case.

Federal agents searched Elbarasse's home Saturday morning. Several of the 218 items they seized from the house seemed more pertinent to the Chicago financial case than to concerns about attacks.

An inventory of those items filed with the court listed bank statements and account information for Chicago defendant Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, tax returns, copies of personal checks for amounts of up to $13,588.75, statements for five wire transfers in totals ranging from $20,000 to $34,000 each and deposit slips from seven Virginia banks and credit unions.

Other seized items, which are listed without any further description, included a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook; correspondence with several inmates at federal penitentiaries; U.S., Egyptian, Indian and Palestinian passports; and something described by the FBI inventory only as "spreadsheet of trained pilots `Law Enforcement Only.'"

Anarchist Cookbook is a title used by many Internet guidebooks on disruptive skills including making bombs and picking locks.

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