Section: Capital Region, Times Union
Date: Sunday, September17, 2006
STING CASE PUTS JUSTICE ON TRIAL
By FRED LeBRUN
From the beginning, the federal case seemed awfully weak against two Albany Muslims alleging money laundering and a vague terrorism-related charge stemming from a sting operation.
Media reports from the ongoing trial in federal court in Albany have done little to dispel that impression.
Frankly, it's difficult to get past the poisoned fruit of the poisoned tree metaphor lawyers like to toss about, the original sting operation. It stinks. All the charges and supposed "crimes" stem from that very shaky government set-up that to this day remains a murky, inclusive mess.
Taking a step back, if the FBI had not purposefully gone after financially strapped 51-year-old pizza shop owner Mohammed M. Hossain through a con-artist informant, Hossain would still be considered the model American citizen he was believed to be before - even by the government. He paid his taxes, worked several jobs, was totally law-abiding and had no truck with elements or philosophies hostile to this country.
In other words, Hossain never sought to break the law or become involved in any way with terrorism.
When the fast-talking informant produced a supposed surface-to-air missile at a private meeting, Hossain had to be told what it was. According to the government's own videotape at the trial, all the inflammatory terrorist rhetoric came from the informant, not from Hossain. If anything, Hossain looks like a guy humoring someone he believed to be a wealthy businessman who was going to make him a desperately needed loan.
By Islamic custom and law, Hossain needed a witness to the financial transaction. He called his imam, Yassin M. Aref, to be the witness and that eventually led to charges against Aref. Even though Aref was never present when the supposed missile was around, we're now told Aref was really the fellow the feds were trying to nab in the first place, apparently on the basis of foreign intelligence. Intelligence that in recent years has also inspired little confidence, or less.
So now we're up to our earlobes in the government's interpreting what all this means through a host of difficult-to-understand witnesses, conflicting translations, contradictory statements and confusing video footage. And a constant parading of the bogus surface-to-air missile for the jury to contemplate.
Talk about an inflammatory piece of evidence inappropriately brandished, beginning the day after the fifth anniversary of 9/11.
Straight up, if the defendants were not a couple of swarthy Middle Easterners who fit the profile, this case would be a laugher. But to the contrary, for reasons that have little to do with Aref and Hossain, I fear what can happen here is no laughing matter at all. Justice is on trial.
I openly wonder if they can even get a fair trial.
Because the government's case is a lot like their parading of the missile. It leans heavily on public relations bluster, emotional impressions and their reading of the tea leaves. Given the emotional pitch of the moment, I'm uncertain a jury can be depended on to tease apart the internal elements that together cast a great deal of doubt on the government's case.
"I am scared to death of you,`' defense lawyer Kevin Luibrand said during the jury selection process Tuesday, referring to questions of profiling and anti-Islamic attitudes post 9/11. Several potential jurors proved openly hostile to the defendants whether they were guilty or not.
Luibrand's fear, it seems, goes to the heart of the matter.
Fred LeBrun can be reached at 454-5453 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.