Section: Capital Region, Times Union
Date: Tuesday, February 14, 2006
SHAKY CASE KEEPS IMAM STUCK IN JAIL
By FRED LeBRUN
On Friday, the Albany imam facing terrorism and money laundering charges stemming from a phony missile launcher sting operation in 2003 again was denied bail by U.S. Magistrate David Homer.
So it was back to the Rensselaer County jail for the religious leader of an Albany mosque, Yassin Aref, 35, until the government can get its act and its case together.
Homer's bail denial is understandable, but barely, at this point. Technically, this is a terrorism case. But as terrorism cases go, this one is unusually shaky, along the lines of Vice President Dick Cheney's quail-shooting skills.
The government's sting operation was a clumsy affair that left us wondering if the accused was far more interested in making an illegal buck than he was in fomenting terrorist activity.
For 13 months, the imam was free on $250,000 bail, wearing a monitoring ankle bracelet. At least he was able to work and support his young family. As far as we have been told, the imam was a model bailee.
But bail was revoked five months ago because the government plopped down a superseding indictment that intimates the imam actually had documented connections to known terrorists. Maybe. Depending, no doubt, on translations that the government has blown before, and on what are to be considered "connections."
The imam's lawyers haven't seen any of this so-called damning evidence.
It's of a piece with the way this entire dismal case has progressed, more as a political sideshow than anything else. At some point, this has to become about the rule of law, and actual illegalities, not concocted ones, and appropriate punishment for those illegalities. The court, and the people of the region, have been patient, too patient. It's time for the government to put up or shut up.
The federal prosecutor, William Pericak, in responding to the latest failed bail attempt, brushed aside claims of "Justice delayed is justice denied," by saying, "I think the case will be tried long before January" 2007. I wonder.
In the meantime, what's wrong with the imam going back out on the street until that trial? Law enforcement can effectively monitor his whereabouts, and save the taxpayers a ton of money in the process.
Also, the court can and should send out the appropriate message that the government's enormous power to accuse does not trump the individual's presumption of innocence. Not unless there is compelling evidence otherwise. So far, none is visible.
The joker in all this is that the imam may well turn out to be the victim of illegal wiretaps by the government anyway, which makes even the superseding indictment shaky.
This case was specifically cited as justification for the Bush administration's secret domestic electronic surveillance that has Washington deservedly in an uproar at the moment.
Next month, the imam has a scheduled hearing before Magistrate Homer on the potentially illegal wiretaps, and tossing the case out because of it.
An appropriate gambit, but probably fruitless. There's no indication at this point that the furor over the wiretaps will be settled one way or the other by next month. In fact, it may be years before that happens - and the trial can be held.
Aref should not be penalized for such a delay. Put two ankle bracelets on him if it makes the government feel more secure, but until there's a trial, let him walk.
Fred LeBrun can be reached at 454-5453 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org