Material witness in Hamas case is released

Va. man was held 10 days after wife taped Bay Bridge

3 houses secure $1 million bond

August 31, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

A Virginia man held 10 days as a material witness in a case involving the militant group Hamas was released from a Baltimore prison yesterday after his lawyer said friends put up their houses as collateral for a $1 million bond.

Ismail Selim Elbarasse, 57, left the federal courthouse in Baltimore with lawyers. He made no comment. Last night, there was no one at his house in Annandale, Va.

The decision to release him came after a federal judge held a closed-door detention hearing yesterday, continuing the secrecy that has surrounded his case from its unusual beginning on the Bay Bridge.

The Elbarasse family was stopped Aug. 20 after police spotted his wife videotaping the bridge while returning from what they said was a vacation. A grand jury in Chicago named him that day as an unindicted co-conspirator in an alleged plot to launder money on behalf of Hamas, which the United States has labeled a terror organization.

When police in Maryland alerted federal authorities to the videotaping, they ordered him held as a material witness for grand jury questioning in the Hamas case. He has not been charged with a crime in either matter, though federal agents obtained search warrants for his home and the sport utility vehicle he was driving.

Material witnesses can be jailed if prosecutors can show that the person has important information but is unlikely to show up if called to testify. Court proceedings can be kept secret, to the point authorities don't have to acknowledge they have a witness in custody.

An attorney for Elbarasse, Stanley L. Cohen, said it was unnecessary to detain the longtime Virginia resident, who is a U.S. citizen.

"We will appear in Chicago when we are asked to, which is something we would have done a week ago," Cohen said.

Elbarasse, who was born in Gaza in 1947, has had close ties to Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, a defendant in the Chicago case who is now political director of Hamas and lives in Syria. Hamas, founded in 1988, has financed and equipped suicide bombers in Israel and the occupied territories.

Although Elbarasse moved to the United States about 1980 and became a citizen in 1994, authorities say he and Marzook, also living in the country by then, worked to raise money and support on Hamas' behalf. At the time, the United States had not yet declared Hamas a terrorist organization.

After the videotaping, federal agents said in affidavits requesting search warrants that they believed Elbarasse might have been conducting surveillance for possible terrorist purposes.

But authorities have said since then that there is no increased threat to the bridge, and Cohen said there was never a reason to suspect Elbarasse.

"Federal agents ... have egg on their face," Cohen said yesterday. "Of course, they won't stand up and say, `We screwed up. We frightened an entire community over a bridge.'"

Although the detention hearing was closed, court papers showed that U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm set bond at $1 million for Elbarasse and ordered him to comply with any future request to appear before a Chicago grand jury.

Cohen said there is no date set for Elbarasse to appear.

Three people offered their houses as security for Elbarasse's release, Cohen said, allowing the Virginia accountant to leave the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center, where he has been confined to a cell 23 hours a day.

In terrorism-related cases, it is atypical for a material witness to be released as early in the legal process as the detention hearing, said Anjana Malhotra, a fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union who has researched recent use of the material witness law.

"It's rare," she said. "Judges have tended to be reluctant."

And when judges do set bond, she said, it is usually high.

"Mr. Elbarasse seems to be really fortunate in that he has friends and community ties who are willing to put up their houses and that much money to support his release," she said. "In other material witness cases, the witness' families have not been able to afford such high bond."

Elbarasse left court yesterday with Franklin W. Draper, the assistant federal public defender representing him in Maryland; Joseph Segreti, the chief investigator for the public defender's office; and Ashraf W. Nubani, the Virginia lawyer who had arranged his bond.

Reached later by telephone, Nubani, a civil rights and immigration lawyer, hung up when asked for details about who put up their houses in order to secure Elbarasse's release.

Nubani and Cohen have represented Muslims accused of having terrorist connections.

Nubani represented a Florida man jailed in 1999 for refusing to testify about Osama bin Laden and his role in worldwide terrorism. Cohen represented a man accused of conspiring with Libya to kill Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. Both lawyers have decried what they say is government overreaching and racial profiling in such cases.

Sun staff writer Dennis O'Brien contributed to this article.

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