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Saudi Cleared of Terrorism Charges by United States

By Robin Wright
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

The Justice Department, its case weakened by Saudi Arabia's failure to provide sufficient evidence or intelligence to U.S. investigators, moved Monday to dismiss terrorism charges against the Saudi dissident suspected of involvement in the 1996 bombing that killed 19 American airmen in Saudi Arabia.

At a court hearing scheduled for Wednesday, U.S. attorneys will ask instead to have suspect Hani Sayegh deported, a Justice Department statement disclosed. Sayegh, who was captured in Canada last spring and extradited to Washington in June, had been the most promising independent lead in the case for the FBI and the Pentagon.

Court documents filed earlier in Canada alleged that Sayegh, who admits he trained in Iran, was a driver and lookout during the attack on Khobar Towers in eastern Saudi Arabia. The collapse of the prosecution case is a major setback and embarrassment for U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, Clinton administration officials conceded.

The Justice Department did not attempt to place blame for the abrupt change in tactics after six months of maneuvering behind the scenes to build the case. "Since we have not been able to develop the requisite evidence, it is necessary that this prosecution be withdrawn," the statement said.

But the shift was forced in large part because Saudi Arabia has not provided sufficient evidence to support its claim that Sayegh was a participant in the second of two attacks since November 1995 that killed 25 Americans and triggered questions about political stability in the oil-rich kingdom.

Despite pressure from the White House and repeated visits by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, the Saudis also have not provided sufficient independent access to other suspects who allegedly implicated Sayegh, the sources said.

A statement issued by Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar ibn Sultan ibn Abdul Aziz late Monday said his government had cooperated "in all aspects of the investigation," while noting that its own investigation is ongoing. "We do not accuse or absolve anyone of the responsibility," the statement said.

But the case also became a legal minefield because of mishandling by U.S. investigators after Sayegh was captured in Ottawa while shopping with a friend, according to Francis D. Carter, Sayegh's court-appointed lawyer.

Sayegh, who does not speak much English, claims the plea bargain worked out with U.S. attorneys was initially brokered with only the help of a detention-center interpreter and without legal counsel present. He also says he did not understand his options or the American judicial system, including trial by jury. In addition, he was not given a copy of the plea agreement until after he was extradited to Washington.

"This case has been badly bungled on all sides," an administration official acknowledged Monday.

In the plea bargain worked out with U.S. officials, Sayegh was in fact not named in the Khobar bombing. He was instead charged with conspiracy to commit murder and "international terrorism" related to his assignment to locate guns for a separate, unsuccessful anti-American attack.

In exchange for a 10-year prison sentence for that conspiracy, Sayegh agreed to tell U.S. officials what he knows about anti-Saudi movements and Iran's involvement in Gulf dissident activities. But after he was extradited, Sayegh repudiated the plea agreement, and opted for a formal trial.

With limited evidence, U.S. attorneys have chosen to drop criminal charges, for now at least. But that may not mean an end to the case - or his imminent deportation.

Legal sources said Justice Department officials apparently hope the threat of deportation to Saudi Arabia will prompt Sayegh to start cooperating with U.S. authorities, possibly as part of a new plea agreement.

Saudi Arabia has already notified the Clinton administration that it will seek formal extradition of Sayegh to face trial for the Khobar bombing, despite the absence of a bilateral treaty between the two allies.

The Justice Department pledged that it will "respond appropriately" if the kingdom meets requirements for extradition. If convicted, Sayegh, whose wife and children are still in Saudi Arabia, could face a death sentence by beheading.

"This is one way of putting pressure on the guy to see if he'll come around to being of assistance to them," said a legal source close to the case.

The Justice Department left open the possibility of future prosecution of Sayegh. Its two-page statement pointedly noted that the investigations into both the Khobar Towers bombing and the separate conspiracy to kill Americans disclosed by Sayegh would continue on a "priority basis."