MINNEAPOLIS – According to prosecutors, Mohamad Kamal Elzahabi's 1984 marriage to an exotic dancer and drug addict in Houston was nothing more than a business deal: He wanted a green card and she needed money, so he paid her to be his wife and help him become a legal permanent resident.
But defense attorney Paul Engh said during opening statements Wednesday in U.S. District Court that the Lebanese man had pure intentions and that his Muslim background dictated he had to commit to the woman he liked in order to continue a courtship with her. The payment was a sort of dowry, Engh said.
"This is what you need to remember. Two sentences," Engh told the jury. "He asked her to go to Lebanon. Period. So that she might meet his family. Period. ... He did that because he wanted the marriage to work."
The dispute goes to the heart of the case against Elzahabi, 44, who was arrested three years ago as part of a terrorism investigation, but is now on trial on immigration charges that allege the man with admitted ties to Al Qaeda used fraud to stay in the United States.
According to an FBI affidavit, Elzahabi acknowledged over 17 days of interviews that he had attended a jihad training camp, fought as a jihadist sniper in Afghanistan from about 1991-995, and had connections to high-ranking Al Qaeda members.
He was not charged with terrorist activity, but was ultimately indicted on two counts of lying to the FBI and three counts of possession of a fraudulent immigration document. The trial that began this week focuses only on the immigration charges. Prosecutors allege Elzahabi obtained the green card through a fraudulent marriage, then used it to try to apply for three different jobs in 2001 and 2002.
"He needed a green card. She wanted money. And they struck a deal," Assistant U.S. Attorney W. Anders Folk said during his opening statement.
Folk said Elzahabi came to the United States in May 1984 on a student visa, with plans to learn English as a second language at the University of Houston. He was introduced to Kathy Ann Glant, a waitress and dancer at the Pink Pussy Cat club, and he promised to pay her $5,000 to marry him.
In August, just months after he came to the U.S., Elzahabi and Glant were married. Folk said the couple never lived together, never exchanged rings or went on a honeymoon. Their contact was minimal, consisting mostly of phone calls Glant made to Elzahabi to collect money, or time spent filling out immigration paperwork. Folk said Glant went to Elzahabi's apartment once, when he thought immigration officials were coming to investigate. They had a sexual encounter on that day, Folk said, and Glant got paid for it.
Elzahabi got his green card in 1986. The marriage ended in 1988, Folk said.
Folk said that during interviews with the FBI in 2004, Elzahabi was recorded as saying the marriage was strictly business.
"He couldn't even remember her name," Folk told the jury.
Prosecutors plan to have Glant, now remarried and known as Kathy Ann Buckheit, testify that she was using drugs at the time and she married Elzahabi for money.
But Engh, the defense attorney, told jurors that while Glant desired money, Elzahabi thought she was pretty and he wanted to date her. The two lived in the same apartment building, Engh said, and according to Elzahabi's Muslim faith, he had to commit to Glant in order to flirt with her.
"He asks her to marry him because that's what he's got to do, culturally," Engh said. "His intent is pure."
But the cultures and these individuals were too different, Engh said. Elzahabi found out that Glant had been abusing drugs and alcohol — which he was against as a Muslim.
Engh said the couple had a joint bank account, that Glant used the name Elzahabi on the account, and that she took Elzahabi's name on immigration documents. Engh also said they had sexual relationships.
Eventually, Engh said, Elzahabi sought a divorce, which was granted in 1988.
Engh said that when Elzahabi told the FBI in 2004 that the marriage was "strictly business," he did so at the end of days of interviews, when he was exhausted. He told the FBI agents what he thought they wanted to hear, Engh said.
In other counts that will be tried later, Elzahabi is accused of lying to FBI agents about shipments of walkie-talkies and other communications equipment to Pakistan. According to the affidavit, Elzahabi told the FBI he did not know what was in the packages. But the FBI said a detailed letter outlined various items inside and instructed Elzahabi to remove them from the boxes and reship them to Pakistan.
Elzahabi has been in custody since 2004.