A Minnesota woman on trial for allegedly funneling money to a terrorist group in Somalia was found in contempt of court Monday when she refused to stand for the judge and jury, citing religious grounds.
Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis found Amina Farah Ali in contempt for failing to stand as court convened and recessed several times during the day, and later sentenced her to 50 days in jail.
He also ordered Ali to be detained for the duration of the trial because of her "behavior in this courtroom." She had been released pending trial as long as she did not violate any laws, but in a written order on Monday, Davis said Ali violated the law when she failed to rise and he revoked her release.
Ali, 35, and her co-defendant, Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 64, are accused of being part of what prosecutors called a "deadly pipeline" that sent more than $8,600 and fighters from the U.S. to Somalia.
As jury selection was beginning Monday, Ali refused to stand when Davis entered the courtroom. She was arrested, and there was a brief recess before court resumed. Davis also said if Ali continued to refuse to rise for the jury, she would not be allowed in the courtroom during her trial, and would have to watch the proceedings electronically.
"I hope that you will rise when the jury appears, but that's your choice," Davis told Ali in court.
Her attorney, Dan Scott, objected to Davis's decision, saying his client believes she has the First Amendment right to practice her religion _ and that her beliefs should trump courtroom decorum. Scott said his client also has the Sixth Amendment right to confront her accusers.
"The mere failure to stand is not so disruptive that the case could not go forward," Scott said.
Davis said Scott's interpretation of the law is wrong. In his written order, Davis said that while religious freedom is protected, Ali hasn't shown that her rights take precedence over the requirement to rise, which is designed to mark the beginning and end of court sessions, show respect for the system and help judges maintain order.
Davis last week issued an order stating all parties must honor the rules of courtroom decorum, or risk being sanctioned. He stressed that he was not denying Ali's religion, but that she must follow the rules, just like everybody else, and noted she was directly disobeyed that order.
"I have said I am doing this for religious reasons," Ali said through a court interpreter. "I am not going to stand up for anyone except Allah."
"I worry about my salvation," she said later.
It's not the first time Ali has made her faith an issue in the courtroom. When she was arraigned after her arrest last year, she told the court she thought she was arrested because of her Muslim faith, and that she did not need an attorney because "Allah is my attorney."
During court Monday, she continued to stand by her principles.
"When I came to this country, I was told I'd have freedom of religion," Ali said through a translator. "If I am not allowed to do so, you can kick me out of this country."
Scott said Ali is refusing to stand based on her interpretation of the hadith, the words of the Prophet Muhammad. Scott said his client believes that since Muhammad told people not to stand for him, she should stand for no one but God.
When sentencing Ali on the contempt charge, Davis said he would allow her to speak with some imams, Muslim religious leaders, while in custody to see if their interpretations of Islam might change Ali's views. If Ali decides to rise for the court, her attorney can ask that the contempt charges be purged, Davis said.
Ali and Hassan, both U.S. citizens of Somali descent, were among 20 people charged in Minnesota's long-running federal investigations into recruiting and financing for al-Shabab, which the U.S. considers a terror group with ties to al-Qaida. Investigators believe at least 21 men left Minnesota _ home to the country's largest Somali community _ to join al-Shabab.
Though others have pleaded guilty to related charges, the women are the first to go on trial.
Ali and Hassan maintain their innocence, saying they were collecting money and clothing for refugees. But prosecutors allege the women went door-to-door and held teleconferences to solicit donations for the fighters. In one of those recorded calls, investigators allege, Ali said to "forget about the other charities" and focus on "the jihad." In others, both women speak with the leader of a militia allied with al-Shabab, and Ali gets updates on the fighting.
Both women, of Rochester, are charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Ali also faces 12 counts of providing such support for allegedly sending more than $8,600 to the group from September 2008 through July 2009. Hassan faces three counts of lying to the FBI.
Each terrorism count carries a 15-year maximum prison sentence. The trial is expected to last about two to three weeks.
Hassan's attorney, Tom Kelly, has tried to get his client's case tried separately, saying the evidence is disproportionately against Ali, and could prejudice his client. He renewed that request again after Ali refused to stand, but Davis denied it.
Jury selection is expected to resume Tuesday.