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The Fort Dix 5 convictions: provocation and frameup?

Published Apr 11, 2009 2:44 PM

Mohamed Shnewer is one of the Fort Dix 5, accused and convicted along with Serdar Tatar and Dritan, Eljivir and Shain Duka of conspiring to kill soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J. Shnewer’s sentencing hearing is scheduled before a federal judge at the end of April. His family contacted Workers World to get out the truth about his case.

At Shnewer’s home in Cherry Hill, N.J., this close-knit family, including his sisters Inas Shnewer and Hnan Duka, his mother Faten Shnewer and his father, Ibrahim Shnewer, all expressed their love and concern for him in numerous ways. But how did the Shnewers’ 23-year-old son, who had quit Camden County Community College to help his parents pay their mortgage, end up facing a possible life sentence without parole.

Tatar, an immigrant from Turkey, worked at a 7-Eleven store. The three Duka brothers, ethnic Albanian immigrants, worked long hours in their family’s roofing business. Shnewer, of Palestinian heritage from Jordan, was in his cab waiting for a fare at the Philadelphia International Airport when armed FBI agents arrested him on May 7, 2007.

Ibrahim Shnewer explained that he is a cabdriver too and was also at the airport waiting for a fare. When he noticed a commotion, he investigated and saw his son under arrest. Cops told him it was just to question him about a fight. Next day, they found out the real charges.

In the Shnewer family’s view, these working-class young adults, all of whom moved to this country as children, were harassed, tricked, manipulated and entrapped by FBI informants, charged with being terrorists, then labeled “Muslim fanatics” and “Jersey jihadists” by the local media.

Background to the case

All five young men graduated from Cherry Hill High School. None had criminal records. They liked to take vacations as a group in the Pocono Mountains for skiing, horseback riding, watching movies, shooting weapons at a designated public shooting range, paintball playing and other similar activities.

After one vacation in 2005, they dropped off a video of their trip at Circuit City to get it transferred into a DVD. Those who saw the tape say it shows friends and relatives vacationing in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. The people speak mostly in English, but the words “jihad” and “Allahu Akbar” (which means “God is great”) are spoken. But many devout and law-abiding Muslims use those words like punctuation marks. (Time Magazine, Dec. 6, 2007)

Brian Morgenstern at Circuit City, while copying the video, noticed at one point bearded men in camouflage shooting guns and shouting in a foreign tongue. He then watched the whole 90 minutes, and the next day called the police. “They arrived within an hour. Two officers watched the video with Morgenstern, and when they heard the word ‘jihad’ (which can refer to a holy war or a personal struggle of any kind), they said, ‘Stop it. That’s enough.’ With that, the Fort Dix case file was opened. The officers made a copy of the video and left.” (Time Magazine)

Ibrahim Shnewer and Faten Shnewer explained that using the words “Allahu Akbar” is common, used on many occasions, “like Americans say Jesus Christ all the time.” It does not mean a terrorist plot is happening.

Role of the informant/provocateur

The star prosecution witness and informant, Mahmoud Omar, is Egyptian-born. He entered the U.S. through Mexico in the 1990s without legal papers. When the FBI hired him in April 2006, he was on probation.

“In 2001, he [Omar] had been charged with opening bank accounts, depositing bogus checks and then trying to draw down the account, according to the indictment. He had pled guilty to three counts of bank fraud and was sentenced to six months in prison and five years’ probation and ordered to pay Patriot Bank $9,550 in restitution.” (Time Magazine)

According to an Oct. 27 Associated Press article, “The defense lawyers also say that Omar sold his Social Security card for $3,000 while working for the FBI. They told jurors that when the FBI found out about it, agents agreed to look the other way.” The Newark Star-Ledger reported on Dec. 22, 2008, that Omar received $240,000 for working as an FBI informant in this case.

Another informant, Besnik Bakalli, “was wanted for a shooting in Albania and awaiting deportation when agents plucked him from a Pennsylvania jail.” It was revealed during the trial that he received $150,000 pay during the undercover operation. (Star-Ledger, Dec. 22)

Unable to afford attorneys experienced with political trials, all five defendants were given court-appointed lawyers.

Using bias to convict

The prosecution’s terrorism “expert” was Evan Kohlman, “who has no expertise beyond undergraduate qualifications, yet he has testified at numerous terrorism trials.” Kohlman made every effort possible through the use of videos and the Internet to link al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden to each defendant. “Shnewer’s family said Kohlman was especially damaging to their case, comparing the Poconos video to jihad videos, dropping inflammatory words like Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda often into his testimony.” (Spinwatch, April 29)

As one U.S. defense attorney explained, “If a jury in the U.S. finds any connection between your client and Osama bin Laden, you’re going to get convicted.” (The Nation, Feb. 4, 2008). Trial Judge Robert Kugler allowed Kohlman to testify, but disallowed a defense expert on the grounds that since he was still in the military, he could not testify against the state.

In 2005, Omar made contact with the five friends, claiming he wanted to convert to Islam to make up for numerous mistakes in his life. Inas Shnewer said Mahmoud Omar instigated the plot to attack Fort Dix, pushing her brother over and over to download videos of jihadists; pushing him to drive to Fort Dix; pushing him to go to the Poconos for firearms practice. Tired of the harassment, for months Shnewer stopped answering phone calls from Omar “maybe 100 times,” Inas said.

In hundreds of hours of recordings, Shnewer mentioned Fort Dix only once, and was the only defendant to say those two words on tape. Even on tape, Omar often castigated Mohamed for inaction: “We’ve been talking about this matter for three months. Start taking some steps. That’s it.” (Star-Ledger, Nov. 12, 2008)

Only certain quotes from the tapes were selected during the trial. Hnan, who is married to Eljivir Duka, asked, “Why didn’t the jury hear Shain, Eljivir and Dritan say, ‘It is forbidden to kill soldiers?’” There was never a meeting in which all five defendants discussed or agreed on the alleged plot.

Finally, when Dritan Duka offhandedly expressed a preference to buy a weapon to use at the Poconos firing range instead of using their rented rifles, it was Omar who pushed this idea. Omar made arrangements with a supposed Baltimore gun dealer (actually an FBI agent) to show up with the weapons for sale. The FBI arrested four of the Fort Dix 5 defendants at that point. “Mohamed was not even there,” said Faten Shnewer.

Sensationalist headlines nationwide the next day read, “Islamists charged with plotting Fort Dix attack.” (Seattle Times) The trial was held under heavy security, with car lanes closed around the Camden courthouse and as many as 10 deputy U.S. marshals ringing the courtroom, while the jury was sequestered each night. After the eight-week trial all five were convicted of conspiracy last Dec. 23.

“This is not justice,” Mohamed’s mother told the Star-Ledger . “The only reason they put five kids in jail is because they are Muslim.”

The sentencing hearings for the Duka brothers will be held at 9:30 a.m. April 28 at the U.S. District Court, 5th and Cooper, 4th Floor. Serdar Tatar and Mohamed Shnewer will have their hearings the next day. Their families are asking all supporters to come and show their solidarity with these innocent young men.

For more information, see the defense organization Web site, www.projectsalam.org.