NEW YORK – Federal prosecutors are challenging efforts by the Yemeni government to intervene in the courtroom defense of an outspoken sheik accused of funneling millions of dollars to Al Qaeda (search).
Sheik Ali Hassan al-Moayad (search) has been jailed in Brooklyn since last year over the objections of Yemen (search), where he was a leading member of an Islamic-oriented political party. With a trial nearing, officials in Yemen recently hired a prominent Yemeni lawyer and sent him to New York to monitor the case.
The lawyer, Khaled al-Ansi, was cleared to enter the United States. But when he showed up in court for a pretrial hearing on Oct. 8 and sought permission to visit al-Moayad, prosecutors warned that the cleric might try to use him to relay anti-American messages to his followers.
In the past, al-Moayad has "called for revenge against America for this prosecution," Assistant U.S. Attorney Kelly Moore told the judge. "He is in fact an influential sheik in Yemen. ... Statements like that on his behalf could have repercussions."
Al-Ansi heads the Yemeni Human Rights Organization (search). He has represented a variety of clients in Yemen, including suspects in the USS Cole (search) bombing in 2000 that killed 17 American sailors.
After al-Moayad was extradited to the United States from Germany last November, Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh (search) asked al-Ansi's organization to assist in the defense. Al-Ansi traveled to the United States at the expense of the Yemeni government, said Murad Allaw, an official in Yemen.
The lawyer, who has remained in the New York area, agreed to undergo an FBI background check before the judge considers allowing him to visit al-Moayad. He was scheduled to meet this week with federal agents.
Attempts to contact al-Ansi through the Yemeni Embassy in Washington and through al-Moayad's court-appointed attorney were unsuccessful. Robert Nardoza, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn, declined to discuss the case.
Al-Moayad and an alleged accomplice, Mohammed Mohsen Yahya Zayed, are charged with conspiring to provide material support to Usama bin Laden and the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas.
The two were arrested in a sting at a hotel in Frankfurt, Germany, where they had expected to meet a wealthy American Muslim. Authorities allege al-Moayad told an FBI informant that he supplied $20 million, recruits and weapons to bin Laden in the years before the Sept. 11 attacks.
The maneuvering over al-Moayad's defense reflects tensions between the American and Yemeni governments that surfaced after his arrest. It also demonstrates U.S. authorities' determination to silence inflammatory rhetoric by defendants in terrorism cases.
Yemeni officials have argued al-Moayad should be returned to his homeland rather than face charges here. But U.S. authorities consider him their biggest catch to date in a campaign to cut off funding for terrorists.
Prosecutors have imposed tight restrictions on who can see al-Moayad in jail, and what his lawyers can discuss with him. Similar restrictions were applied to defense attorney Lynne Stewart (search) and jailed Egyptian sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman (search) before she was charged in federal court in New York with helping the cleric illegally communicate with followers from prison; she could get nearly 20 years in prison if convicted.
Al-Moayad's court-appointed attorney, Howard Jacobs, said he believes al-Ansi is trustworthy and could help the defense team recruit witnesses and gather evidence in Yemen.
"I find him to be very competent," he said.