By Richard Weizel
MILFORD, Connecticut (Reuters) - Two British men who pleaded guilty to raising money for al Qaeda and the Taliban were denied their bid on Friday to gain access to secret documents about a witness whose testimony could have a major impact on how long they spend in prison.
The pair, 39-year-old Babar Ahmad and 34-year-old Syed Talha Ahsan, have argued in papers filed in U.S. District Court in New Haven, Connecticut, that they have a right to more information on the witness, British citizen Saajid Badat.
According to U.S. prosecutors, Badat was recruited into al Qaeda as a result of Ahmad's work and went on to play a role in the attempt by "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, another Briton, to blow up a jetliner over the Atlantic Ocean just three months after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Defense attorneys for Ahmad and Ahsan argued before U.S. District Judge Janet Hall that the government should provide transcripts of 55 taped interviews with Badat conducted in 2008 by British authorities, along with photos of several suspected militants.
But prosecutors told the judge they have sought the materials and were denied by the British government, receiving only a summary report by an FBI agent present during 2008 testimony by Badat in Britain.
"I cannot order a foreign government to provide information they refuse to release, and the government obviously cannot do that either," Hall said, in ruling that Ahmad and Ahsan could not have access to the material.
Badat will be questioned by prosecutors and defense attorneys in London during a three-day deposition starting on April 9.
The judge denied the defendants' request that they have Internet access during Badat's deposition in the sentencing phase of their case, but they will be permitted to watch the questioning along with their attorneys in a Hartford conference room and be told what Badat is saying.
Prosecutors argued the sealed documents defense lawyers are requested are too "sensitive" to release, while the defense contended they could show that Badat would be willing to lie about their clients.
"Our frustration is that Mr. Ahmad and Mr. Ahsan wanted to be prosecuted in the United Kingdom, but were sent to stand trial in the United States and now we cannot have access to all the materials we need to cross examine one of the key witnesses," assistant federal public defender Kelly M. Barrett told Hall.
Defense lawyers noted in court papers that Badat served less than seven years in prison and has not been extradited to face charges in the United States.
"The witness ultimately moved on from (recruitment by) Ahmad and came under the mentorship and training of actual al Qaeda members who trained and prepared him for al Qaeda's so-called 'shoe-bomb' plot," prosecutors argued in court papers requesting that Badat be interviewed in Britain.
Ahmad and Ahsan in December pleaded guilty to running the Azzam.com web site, which raised money for al Qaeda and the Taliban. They were prosecuted in Connecticut because U.S. officials in the state played a key role in the investigation.
Ahmad faces up to 25 years in prison and two to five years' probation. Ahsan faces up to 15 years in prison and up to five years' probation. Each could be fined up to $500,000.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Bernard Orr)