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Judge: Jordanian student possibly coerced

From Phil Hirschkorn
CNN New York Bureau

NEW YORK (CNN) -- A federal judge has scheduled a February 15 evidentiary hearing for a Jordanian-born California college student who was detained for 2 1/2 months after allegedly lying about his connections to the September 11 terrorists.

Osama Awadallah, 21, free on bail since mid-December, is charged with making two false statements to a grand jury about his association with a pair of hijackers aboard the jet that hit the Pentagon, and if convicted, could face up to 10 years in prison.

Indictment (US v. Awadallah) (PDF)
Opinion and Order (US v. Awadallah) (PDF)

But in an 81-page decision issued Thursday, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin wrote that the government's treatment of Awadallah "suggests that he may have been the victim of coercion and intimidation."

Defense attorneys sought to have the court suppress Awadallah's allegedly false statements and other physical evidence found in his apartment and car. Awadallah, a legal permanent resident of the United States, lives in San Diego, where his father, a U.S. citizen, and three of his brothers also live.

Before taking him into custody, 20 FBI agents surrounded Awadallah on the street, refusing to let him return to his apartment or call his brother. They said he would have to take a lie detector test and persuaded him to sign forms consenting to the searches, which unearthed videotapes on the war in Bosnia and computer-generated photos of Osama bin Laden.

Scheindlin tossed the material out, saying it was "not relevant to the crime charged, and it is inflammatory and prejudicial."

Over the past 2 1/2 years, Awadallah has worked as a gas station attendant and as a security guard and also has been enrolled in Grossmont Community College, mainly studying English as a second language.

FBI agents detained him on a material witness warrant in late September after finding a scrap of paper saying: "Osama 589-5316" in the glove compartment of a car abandoned by Nawaf Alhazmi at Dulles airport, where American Airlines Flight 77 originated in September 11.

Alhazmi was one of four men who commandeered the Los Angeles-bound flight and crashed it into the Pentagon. The phone number was Awadallah's when he lived in La Mesa, California, two years earlier.

Alhazmi and another Pentagon hijacker, Khalid Almidhar, lived for part of 2000 in San Diego.

In grand jury testimony October 10, Awadallah conceded seeing Alhazmi about 35 to 40 times in the San Diego area between April 2000 and January 2001 at a Texaco station and at a mosque. As for Almidhar, he said he did not recognize photographs of him and did not know anyone named "Khalid."

Awadallah also claimed he did not write the names "Nawaf" and "Khalid" in an examination book in an English class. He first testified while shackled to a chair in a prison uniform and after being detained, mostly in solitary confinement, for 20 days.

In his second grand jury appearance October 15, after being shown the original exam booklet turned over to federal investigators by a teacher, Awadallah admitted writing the names "Nawaf" and "Khalid," according to the indictment. He also identified Almidhar as a man who had often accompanied Alhazmi and acknowledged knowing him.

Scheindlin rejected defense arguments that Awadallah should never have been indicted because he recanted his testimony in a second appearance before the same grand jury.

Scheindlin did say Awadallah may attempt to prove that he was unlawfully arrested; that his apartment was unlawfully searched; that he was abused by law enforcement officials, as defense attorneys claim; that he was denied a diet in jail that was acceptable to his Muslim faith; and that he was denied access to his lawyer and family.

Scheindlin is the same judge who granted Awadallah's bail application last November, saying "the evidence against Awadallah is not particularly strong."

Awadallah has no criminal record.




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