WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – A Sudanese pilot who officials say is being investigated for possible Al Qaeda links was ordered held without bond Monday, but only after a magistrate questioned the strength of the government's immigration fraud case against him.
No terrorism links were mentioned at the hearing for Mekki Hamed Mekki Hamed Mekki, although a prosecutor said other charges might be brought and a defense attorney hinted at the same.
U.S. Magistrate Russell Eliason said the prosecution's case was not strong. "Does the government intend to pursue this case?" he asked.
"Yes, your honor, and there's the possibility that other charges will be brought," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Auld.
Defense lawyer Gregory Davis, one of Mekki's two public defenders, also hinted that prosecutors had reasons other than immigration violations to want to hold Mekki.
"It's almost like saying somebody's dead and there's no body," Davis said in court. "I think they've jumped the gun and held him ... when there was really some other motive for holding him."
Outside court, the defense said prosecutors have not mentioned any links to terrorism.
Two government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity last week said federal authorities believe the 30-year-old Mekki is linked to Usama bin Laden's terrorist group. They also said authorities were investigating the possibility that he may have been plotting to fly a plane into a U.S. target.
Acquaintances of Mekki's in Greensboro, where he has lived since 2000 and most recently drove a taxi, say Mekki is peace-loving and wanted nothing more than to stay in the United States.
FBI agents said in an affidavit filed in federal court that Mekki said he submitted several forms with variations of name, date of birth and place of birth to improve his chances in an immigration lottery.
He submitted the forms for this year's U.S. diversity immigrant program, which makes 50,000 permanent visas available to people from countries with low rates of immigration, the agents said.
But at the hearing, prosecutors said officials at the visa proccessing center said unsuccessful applications are not retained. FBI Special Agent Michael Knapp said there may be no way to prove that Mekki sent in false applications.
"Mr. Mekki told us himself that he submitted those documents and they were mailed to the Kentucky center," Knapp testified, referring to a center in Lexington, Ky.
Eliason said he ordered Mekki held because there was a risk he would flee. When the case is over, Mekki will face deportation to Sudan. "He stated that he did not intend to return to the Sudan," Knapp said in describing an interview with Mekki on Sept. 13, the day Mekki was arrested.
In the courtroom, Mekki slumped in his chair, looking at his lap most of the time. About 45 supporters -- mostly Sudanese men and many of them fellow cab drivers in Greensboro -- watched the proceedings.
The affidavit does not say why federal authorities contacted Mekki, only that they first did so on Sept. 13 while he drove his cab. Mekki gave the agents a North Carolina driver's license and said he had additional forms of identification at his apartment, the affidavit said.
At his apartment, he retrieved his wallet and a bag that he said contained all his identification documents and documents relating to his application for asylum.
The agents said their review of Mekki's documents showed he had a U.S. visitor's visa that expired in October 2000. They said they also found 20 entry forms for the U.S. diversity immigrant visa program, the form that Mekki said he had submitted with several names, dates of birth and places of birth. Among those was the name of Makki Hamad Makki and birth dates and places of Dec. 14, 1972, and Khartoum, Sudan; April 20, 1972, and Omdurman, Sudan; and Jan. 1, 1972, and Bahary, Sudan.
In an interview published Monday in Sudan, Mekki's father said his son would never have plotted against America.
Hamed Mekki Hamed told Al-Watan daily newspaper his wife fainted on hearing about the arrest.
"This news was a shock to us in the family," he was quoted as saying. "My son Mekki, the son that I know very well, cannot strike at a bird -- he could not hit a bird. He is not the kind to throw a stone at a pigeon let alone a White -- or a black -- House."