The lawyer for a Virginia man accused of acting as a Syrian spy said Monday that his client's recent travel to that country was part of a fact-finding mission led by a U.S. congressman, not part of an espionage conspiracy. The congressman, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, denies knowing the man.
A judge held a detention hearing Monday for Mohamad Soueid, 47, of Leesburg, after he was arrested last week and accused of spying on Syrian expatriates in the U.S. on behalf of the regime of President Bashar Assad. The Assad regime has been brutally suppressing a popular revolt there, and activists say Soueid's alleged surveillance of anti-Assad protesters in the U.S. is part of a pattern of intimidation by the Syrian government against expatriates around the world.
Soueid's lawyer, Haytham Faraj, said Monday that prosecutors are twisting facts to make Soueid's actions appear sinister. The indictment against Soueid, for instance, accuses him of traveling to Syria this summer and meeting personally with Assad. But Faraj said Soueid was a legitimate member of Kucinich's delegation, who made the trip "to speak to Mr. Assad about the negative consequences of the Syrian government's actions."
Faraj said Soueid is a prominent member of the Syrian-American community and has contacts with people at the Syrian embassy, but that does not make him a spy.
"He's a Syrian-American who maintains contacts with his home country," Faraj said.
Kucinich's office said Monday that Soueid was not a member of the delegation.
"He was not part of our delegation. I do not know who he is. Whoever he is, it sounds like he has a serious problem with the truth. If in fact, he has spied upon U.S. citizens on behalf of the Syrian government that will have immediate consequences for the Assad regime," the Ohio Democrat said Monday in a statement.
Faraj said outside court that while Soueid was a member of the delegation, he was unsure if Kucinich or somebody else invited Soueid to participate in the delegation.
Monday's hearing was postponed before the judge could rule on whether Soueid will remain in jail while he awaits trial. The hearing will resume Tuesday afternoon.
Prosecutors say Soueid is a flight risk.
Soueid's family members, including his wife Iyman, testified on his behalf. A cousin, journalist Rasha Elass, said she has essentially been blacklisted by the Assad regime for articles she wrote while covering the Middle East.
Iyman Soueid she has been married to her husband for 17 years, and that he has been a devoted family man who provides for the couple's twin 15-year-old boys. She testified that money transfers of more than $100,000 the family received recently from Syria were from a family member who was going to help Soueid start a business.
Prosecutors had cited the money transfers of evidence of Soueid's contacts overseas and his ability to flee if released from prison.
Last week, the Syrian government denied that Soueid was a Syrian agent and said there "has never ever been a private meeting between President Assad and Mr. Soueid. This ludicrous accusation is a reflection of the poor quality of the whole set of allegations."
As part of its evidence Monday, prosecutors introduced a photo showing Soueid and Assad shaking hands, which they say was taken on Soueid's trip to Syria this summer.