A Virginia man accused of acting as a Syrian spy is a flight risk and should remain in jail while he awaits trial, a federal judge ruled Friday.
The decision from U.S. District Court Judge Claude Hilton overturns a magistrate last week who had ruled that Mohamad Soueid, 47, of Leesburg, could be freed on home detention. The magistrate had also disparaged the significance of the government's case, saying that at worst Soueid appears to be no more than a low-level operative.
The indictment against Soueid accuses him of working with the Syrian intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat, to monitor Syrian expatriates in the U.S. who have been rallying opposition to the regime of President Bashar Assad. Human rights activists estimate that Assad's crackdown on a popular uprising in the country has left more than 3,000 opponents of the regime dead.
Prosecutors immediately appealed the magistrate's order to release Soueid, whom they portray as a savvy intelligence agent with access to the highest levels of Syrian government. They say he met privately with Assad earlier this year and introduced as evidence a photo of Soueid and Assad shaking hands.
While the indictment accuses him only of monitoring Syrian dissidents in the U.S., prosecutors say that Soueid also discussed a "Plan B" that would include taking action against those being monitored.
"He is an extension of the government of Syria, we will prove that. ... And that is a very violent country," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Fitzpatrick.
Soueid's lawyer, Haytham Faraj, said the government is twisting innocent facts to make them look sinister. He acknowledged that Soueid is a supporter of the regime who maintains contacts with his native country _ Soueid is Syrian born and a naturalized U.S. citizen _ but said that does not make him a spy.
And he said much of the government's evidence comes from a paid informant who has a motive to tell the government what it wants to hear and who frequently boasted to Soueid of his connections as an international drug dealer.
"The FBI used a paid informant to try and entrap Mr. Soueid," Faraj wrote in court papers.
Faraj said after Friday's hearing that he intends to appeal Hilton's ruling on detention.
The Syrian government has denied that Soueid is an agent and denied that he ever met privately with Assad
Also at Friday's hearing, Soueid formally entered a not guilty plea and the judge set a trial date in March.