Terror convictions put to the test
Convicted in 2006 after a fictitious plot, 2 members of an Albany mosque take case to federal appeals court
By ROBERT GAVIN, Staff writer
Times Union .
First published: Tuesday, March 25, 2008
NEW YORK -- Two members of an Albany mosque imprisoned for aiding a fictitious terror plot were convicted because of a "wealth of prejudicial evidence" -- including testimony from a terrorism expert who needed last-minute schooling from the Internet, their lawyers told a federal appeals court Monday.
Yassin M. Aref, 37, a Kurdish refugee from Iraq, and Mohammed M. Hossain, 53, an immigrant from Bangladesh, are serving 15-year prison sentences for planning to launder money from the sale of a shoulder-fired missile.
An FBI informant claimed the device would be sold to terrorists scheming to assassinate a Pakistani ambassador near the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan. No part of the counter-terrorism sting was real, but a jury in U.S. District Court in Albany found the pair guilty in 2006 of supporting terrorism.
On Monday, defense attorneys blasted the case while trying to get the convictions tossed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan.
"It doesn't make any sense," said Aref's attorney, Terence L. Kindlon, calling the sting "almost a case put forth by the gang that couldn't shoot straight."
Kindlon said Shahed "Malik" Hussain, the informant who ensnared the men, spoke confusing language and never mentioned a missile to his client, who was the imam for the Masjid As-Salam mosque on Central Avenue. Kindlon also questioned why jurors were allowed to hear incriminating evidence about his client, such as information in diaries he kept in Damascus, Syria, in 1999, which Kindlon said had no relevance to the case.
Moreover, Kindlon questioned why U.S. District Judge Thomas McAvoy instructed the jury that the FBI had "good" reasons to track the men -- without elaborating why. Kindlon argued that the case included a "wealth of prejudicial evidence, some of it nearby, some of it from far away."
Kevin Luibrand, attorney for Hossain, who owned the Little Italy pizzeria in Albany, spent most of his argument questioning why his client was lured into the sting. The lawyer said Hossain never tried to conceal accepting a loan from the informant.
He also questioned the eleventh-hour testimony of Evan Kohlmann, the prosecution's last witness who testified about terrorist groups referenced in the government's case. Earlier, while being questioned by defense attorneys, Kohlmann didn't know the identity of the Bangladeshi prime minister, Luibrand told the three-member judicial panel.
In addition, he said, Kohlmann needed to log onto the Internet to hone his preparation for trial.
McAvoy's decision to allow Kohlmann's testimony "just kills us at that point in time," Luibrand said.
The case started in 2003 when the informant befriended Hossain. He had known Aref from the mosque. Aref, whose name surfaced in documents seized that year from three suspected terrorist camps in Iraq, was the FBI's main target.
The case hinged on a $50,000 loan the informant agreed to provide Hossain in exchange for repayment in checks to his pizza business. As such, the government maintained, it showed the money came from the sale of arms to terrorists. Assistant U.S. Attorney William Pericak, representing the prosecution on Monday, said Aref knew very well a missile was being discussed. Also, he said Hossain knew the loan involved illegal activity but "his motive is greed."
An attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union in Manhattan, Corey Stoughton, argued against sealing from public view the documents in the case, including McAvoy's response to a defense motion involving what the government considered classified information.
Lawyers said it could be several months before a decision is made. As both sides made their cases, some 50 supporters -- including Hossain's 41-year-old wife, Mossammat -- sat in the courtroom to support Aref and Hossain, who are incarcerated in Indiana and New Jersey, respectively. The Albany contingent had come to Manhattan by bus that morning.
"We are not very sure about the judicial process -- this is something new to many of us," Shamshad Ahmad, president of the mosque, said before the proceedings began. "We find a lot of flaws in the case."
Pete Looker, 57, of Ballston Lake, held a copy of Aref's recent book, "Son of Mountains: My Life as a Kurd and a Terror Suspect," as he listened.
"I'm here because I really feel it was a total injustice," Looker said.
Robert Gavin can be reached at 434-2403 or by e-mail at rgavin@ timesunion.com
Previously:Two members of an Albany mosque got 15-year prison terms for money laundering in a phony plot to kill a foreign diplomat.
The latest:Lawyers gave oral arguments in the appeal of the 2006 convictions of Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain.
What's next:The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals will issue its decision some time in the next few months.