WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Syrian-born man accused of spying on protesters against the Syrian government in the United States had ties to Damascus’ ambassador to Washington, U.S. prosecutors said in arguing that he was no low-level intelligence operative.
Tensions were already high between Washington and Damascus with the recall of the U.S. ambassador to Syria because of what the Obama administration said on Monday were Syrian government-inspired threats against him.
The U.S. move was quickly followed by Damascus recalling its own top diplomat, Imad Moustapha, for consultations.
Mohamad Soueid, 47, was arrested in Virginia earlier this month on charges he was acting on behalf of Syria by spying on protesters in the United States as part of a plot to intimidate and potentially harm them or their families back in Syria.
“The defendant has access to and regular contact with high-ranking officials in the Syrian government, including the Syrian Ambassador to the United States,” prosecutors said in a motion filed late Friday asking that Soueid be held pending trial.
Prosecutors said that Soueid worked for the Syrian intelligence service, or Mukhabarat, communicated with the ambassador, including sending him his private telephone number, and did tasks for the diplomat, though they did not say what he did.
In one instance, Soueid sent a coded message in April to the Syrian intelligence service via email that described a meeting of protesters in a Virginia suburb of Washington, according to indictment.
“The Syrian ambassador to the United States would not have jeopardized his ability to remain in the United States by receiving reports and contact information from a mere low-level operative,” the prosecutors said.
Soueid’s lawyer said that his client was in touch with the ambassador as well as other diplomats, but no more than other prominent members of the Syrian community and there was nothing wrong with such contacts.
“Mr. Soueid was born in Syria, is proud of his Syrian heritage, has family in Syria and fears for his homeland during a very turbulent period,” said his lawyer, Haytham Faraj. “Mr. Soueid is being persecuted for his views and because those views are contrary to the policy now in vogue.”
A representative for the Syrian embassy was not immediately available for comment. Earlier this month, the embassy denied that Soueid was its agent or provided anyone at the embassy with information about “U.S. protesters or otherwise.”
Assad has been facing pressure in Syria from protesters who are challenging his autocratic rule in clashes that the United Nations has estimated has killed 3,000 people.
The filing was made after a U.S. magistrate judge ruled Soueid could be released pending trial. Prosecutors appealed because they fear he will flee, so he remains incarcerated pending a detention hearing on Friday.
Soueid had obtained two new passports from the Syrian embassy, sought to get a fake Venezuelan passport and he discussed fleeing across the porous American border with Mexico, according to the filing by prosecutors.
Further, his wife worked in the Syrian consulate at the Washington embassy for two years, which could also help him get a passport to flee the United States, the court papers said.
The filing also revealed that law enforcement agents had found an AK-47 semi-automatic assault weapon and 500 rounds of ammunition in his Virginia home. Soueid’s lawyer said the firearm was legal in that state and registered.
The case is USA v. Soueid, No. 11-cr-494, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Editing by Philip Barbara