Defense Produces Own Wire-Tap Translation In Somali Trial
February 4, 2013 1:11 p.m.
Sanjay Bhandari, is a San Diego Attorney and former federal prosecutor
Abdi Mohamoud, is executive director of the Horn of Africa Foundation
Related Story: Defense Produces Own Wiretap Translation In Somali Trial
ALLISON ST. JOHN: San Diego's Somali community is watching intensely as four men stand trial on charges of supporting a terrorist group. This is KPBS Midday Edition. It's been two years since the Somalis were arrested, charged with conspiracy in connection with transfers to al-Shabab. San Diego was home to men who turned out to be leaders of Al Qaeda, but these men have pleaded innocent. What case does the US attorney have, then how do women feel about gun control we heard from Gabby Giffords calling the legislature to act and already heard about activist Gail Trotter talked about a gun in the hands of a woman defending her babies is a defense weapon. And the animation Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary. That is all ahead on Midday Edition, but first this news. Four Somalis face charges in San Diego that they support terrorists. Charges from probably two very different women take shots at gun control and Spike and Mike's Festival of animation celebrates 30 years. This is KPBS Midday Edition. Today is Monday, February 4. I am Allison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Here's what we are working on today the KPBS news room. The national city company operating the bus that yesterday killed at least eight passengers and injured 30 others was on a federal watch list for past problems involving safety issues like faulty tires and brakes. Los Angeles times also reports authority passengers in the crash on a steep road from Big Bear were all from Tijuana. Homeland security Sec. Janet Napolitano is in San Diego today to assess border security operations. Today on Midday Edition San Diego has one of the largest populations of Somalis in the country Somalia has been torn by violence for decades and the rebel group Roche about was named a terrorist group by the US government back in 2008. News of terrorist groups operating in North Africa is growing to find out if there's tires between groups and people living in the United States. Here in San Diego we have four Somali men on trial this week. They were arrested back in 2010 and here to help us understand this case we have in studio Sanjay Bhandari, who is a San Diego attorney in private practice who started at the US attorney's office and to thank you so much for joining us
SANJAY BHANDARI: Thank you for having me.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: Also we have Abdi Mohamoud, director of Horn of Africa a nonprofit that works with the Somali community here in San Diego. I appreciate you coming in.
ABDI MOHAMOUD: Thanks for welcoming me.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: So Sanjay, first off all, give us a background in this case. You're the form and what are they charged with?
SANJAY BHANDARI: The defendants are three people who lived in San Diego and one from Orange County, the lead defendant defendant number one was a San Diego-based taxidriver. There's another defendant used to be an Imam of a local mosque that was frequented by the Somali community predominantly and another defendant who is in Orange County-based cabdriver. The charges center on late December of 2007 through about August of 2008. The indictment alleges that the defendants participated in a conspiracy to support a foreign terrorist organization, al-Shabab. Before the time when al-Shabab was a designated terrorist organization of some of the charges but not all of the charges.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: That's an important distinction.
SANJAY BHANDARI: It is and that's part of the defense that some of the defendants have pointed out, some of their calls attributable to certain defendants focus on a time before the designation. There are really very few calls afterwards. But the essence of all the charges is that the defendants conspired to send money to al-Shabab, that was a form of material support they were providing through San Diego Halah, money transfer business. The money transfer business was rated in a search warrant, records were obtained, other significant to and surveillance, warrants that were conducted in evidence conducted that's usable in a primary, the criminal case.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: What are the penalties if they are found guilty?
SANJAY BHANDARI: Significant penalties. In December last year there was a woman who pleaded guilty to a very similar charge, supporting it was actually al-Shabab, and the plea agreement stipulated that she said about $1500 to al-Shabab. She received a sentence of sentence of 12 years, there was a similar case in Chicago where one of the attorneys who is defending this case defended the case in Chicago that defendant receives 7 ½ years. Those were on plea deals. It's typical for a case that actually goes to trial, will not receive the same kind of sentence. So the sentences should be higher if the defendants are convicted.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: A lot at stake we can talk more about the evidence in a minute we did invite US attorney's office to be on the program but they said they cannot, during the trial. Obviously this must be having an enormous impact on the Somali community, Abdi, tell us how people are reacting to this what is the feeling?
ABDI MOHAMOUD: Well, people are very anxious, many of them are newly arrived families, many of them are relatives of some of the defendants, and so they have yet to have a grip on the legal system in the United States and so they are very anxious and probably as many people as possible show up to the court hearings in the morning to see how the process works and you know, they are very anxious and really don't know what to make of it.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: It's interesting you say many of them are recently arrived so the links between the two countries are still very fresh, right?
ABDI MOHAMOUD: Yes, these are people who have experienced a lot of hardship on their own, so it's very challenging time for them. And, let me say that extremely, the overwhelming majority of the Somali community, they despise al-Shabab, because of what they are doing to their country. And so, it is very sometimes it is very challenging when they see that someone is being accused of actually supporting them.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: Okay so it must have really toward the community apart to some degree, or at least created a lot of discussion and uncertainty.
ABDI MOHAMOUD: Yes
ALLISON ST. JOHN: So this morning, Sanjay, you were in court, and they are discussing some of the evidence that is based a lot I understand on wiretaps. Tell us with some of the evidence is and what has been said about it so far.
SANJAY BHANDARI: Actually not much has been said about it, and this is one of the, this is just an unavoidable byproduct of the criminal justice system. Oftentimes the presentation of evidence by the prosecution is, by necessity somewhat disjointed. Evidentiary foundations need to be laid for evidence that comes in later, the more compelling evidence that comes in later, so before you can introduce the evidence, before you play the tapes on a wiretap you need to describe the nature of the equipment that was used to prove that the tapes you are playing incorporate the very same tapes on which the equipment recorded for particular telephone numbers. You have to tie up the voices are heard, the telephone numbers that are being used to the defendants, so a lot of what is going on in court to date, there has not been any playing of the wiretaps.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: And this might last for three weeks so it might come out more specifically.
SANJAY BHANDARI: They expect to start today, but thus far what has happened is a lot of agents presenting, here is the citizenship application. Take a look at the phone numbers the defendant says they use, take a look at the nicknames that used etc.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: Would you say from your experience that some of what we know about the wiretaps are saying is pretty damning from what I understand there was one conversation when (inaudible) had a conversation with a top leader who said he did not have the money to shoot the enemy and he said he would try his best to send something and so that is the kind of thing we are dealing with it the phone tapping. Is that key evidence to prove their guilt in this case?
SANJAY BHANDARI: Certainly wiretap evidence is very compelling evidence. There is nothing that is more compelling than having a videotape or tape recording of the defendant and playing that for a jury and letting them see or hear the defendant's own words. This case again will present some difficulties for the prosecution because of course the jury does not speak Somali. So everything that is going to be presented to them is from a layer of translation. That allows for arguments that things are being mistranslated. There will also be arguments about misattribution. He wasn't actually on the phone with this person, he was on the phone with that person or the wrong person is designator as a speaker in this case. If taken a snippet of conversation out of context so these are all arguments are going to be made.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: Abdi, what is the community and community sing when they hear pieces of evidence like this what is their reaction?
ABDI MOHAMOUD: You know, the community has not heard the evidence yet, different there is evidence and there are wiretaps so, they don't know what to make of it now. I just want to go back to the point that Sanjay made earlier, which was that some of these activities took place at a time when actually else about was not a terrorist organization
ALLISON ST. JOHN: 2008 is when they were declared a terrorist organization by the US.
ABDI MOHAMOUD: So some of the activities occurred in 2007 and 2006 and during the time was actually during the invasion of Somalia, when almost all Somalis were really charged up about the occupation of Somalia by Ethiopia. So, there is also this perception that maybe the government is going after certain individuals because of political stance they took. Now, certainly some of these activities probably took place after al-Shabab was designated, which is very, certainly very compelling, so those had yet to really come out
ALLISON ST. JOHN: In the trial. I understand one of the most important phrases is the charges of material support. And that there is some controversy around the charges, for example the Center for Constitutional rights contends that these provisions violate the First Amendment because they criminalize activities activities like distributing literature, donating cash and humanitarian assistance, even when the type of support is intentionally to promote nonviolent activity so they are saying this is guilt by association rather than real guilt. What does the US attorney have to prove in order to make its case?
SANJAY BHANDARI: Well, I certainly I am aware that across the country there has been controversy about the law. It was very recently upheld by the Supreme Court on a far broader issue than the issue presented in this case. I think the law gets more controversial when it is applied to making statements in support of an organization or trying to provide humanitarian aid to an organization that is a designated foreign terrorist organization. It is less controversial when people are on tape saying we'd like you to provide money so that we can go out and kill people that is the issue that is presented in this case, that's what the US attorney needs to prove to prove the case. The essence of these charges and they are slightly different for each one, but the essence is that these four people conspired to send money for an organization intending that it would be used to commit murders to deploy weapons of mass distraction, which has a slightly different meaning, essentially just means in this context a grenade, bomb, or conventional weapon that could kill many people in the point. And to otherwise supported organization that has been designated by the US government as a foreign terrorist organization and that was effective March 2008, when that happened.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: I understand over in Minnesota which is another big Somali community is it fair to say that Minnesota and San Diego are two of the largest communities?
ABDI MOHAMOUD: Yes they are
ALLISON ST. JOHN: The charges there for recruiting people, more of just sending money here and what is the intention of the money. I want to mention, you said Sanjay they are slightly different for the defendants one of them, the Imam for the City Heights mosque publicly announced a terrorist group sizes the prosecution reconcile that with the accusations?
SANJAY BHANDARI: This is a good part of the defense case, they are saying that the prosecution is pulling little snippets of conversation out of context. When you put them out of context, they don't mean what the prosecution says. When you look at statements they've made in other aspects of their life or maybe on the call after the one recorded by the prosecution and presented, that will show you that this person actually does not support what is implied by the calls. You know, we talked a little bit about wiretap evidence. It can be very compelling. It can be compelling also in a different way where you have multiple defendants as you do here and one of the defendants clearly, Boselli, or sorry if I am pronouncing his name wrong, clearly he is recorded on for more intercepts that the others in the conversations appear to be again we are going on but the translations, they have. They appear to be far more explicit so the contrast can also be telling when you have such compelling evidence again, and defendant one arson more nuanced and subject to competing inferences.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: Now, Abdi, we all know this is a country of immigrants and many immigrants send money home. Has this affected the way that Somalis in this community can send money back to their country? Is it now more difficult because of these kinds of charges?
ABDI MOHAMOUD: Ever since September 11 there has been a host of laws that have been passed by, you know these are federal laws with tight restrictions on sending money overseas. And you know obviously those also apply to those who sent money back to Somalia, so people have to have identification now, so it is, you really have to know who is sending the money, so that has gone really well, and we also have to say that the US attorney's office had actually several meals with our community.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: Laura Duffy the US attorney reached out to the community hasn't made a difference?
ABDI MOHAMOUD: It actually did because many of the newly arrived immigrants, the perception I have is from back home where people are targeted for who they are, and so the US attorney's office, the meetings that we had with the communal leaders in the community in general have actually made it very clear the process that indictments go through, that it's not up to what individual and who they don't like and who they do like.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: The American justice system is not so much about politics as it would be in Somalia?
ABDI MOHAMOUD: Yes it's very transparent, so there've been meetings to have a dialogue, and that has actually allayed a lot of the fears and it is a great credit to the US attorney's office.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: Now, just want to finish off with asking you, Sanjay if there's something you're particularly watching for in the coming weeks of this trial.
SANJAY BHANDARI: What's going to be important is seeing how much the defense can introduce through their own tapes, through their own translations and frankly I think given the nature of the case and some of the difficulties in presenting the evidence, this is not a wiretap case where there will be a whole bunch of cooperating witnesses on the stand. It's really good to be wiretaps and whether the jury can hold the mosaic of evidence together. I think the case is probably going to come down to summation, closing arguments to really put down for the jury in a compelling way.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: Thank you so much for helping us to understand the difficult case, Sanjay Bhandari is a private attorney in private practice, and Abdi Mohamoud who is executive director for Horn of Africa. I really appreciate you coming in.
ABDI MOHAMOUD: Thanks for having us.