ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (Reuters) - A Syrian-born man pleaded not guilty on Friday to charges that he was an agent of the Syrian intelligence service and spied on protesters in the United States who oppose President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Mohamad Soueid, 47, was ordered detained pending trial by U.S. Judge Claude Hilton after prosecutors argued that he was a serious flight risk, citing multiple passports they found, including a recently acquired Syrian one.
A naturalized U.S. citizen, Soueid was arrested earlier this month and is charged with acting as an agent of the Syrian intelligence service and collecting video and audio recordings as well as information about protesters who opposed Assad and his government.
Soueid, who lives in a Virginia suburb outside Washington, was also accused of recruiting others to collect information about protesters and sending materials to the Syrian embassy and to Damascus, according to the indictment.
His attorney, Haytham Faraj, said his client pleaded not guilty for Soueid and argued that he had no intention of fleeing the United States. Soueid obtained the new Syrian passport because of “home pride,” Faraj said.
He also noted Soueid’s immediate family was in the United States and thus “he has no intention ... to flee to any other country,” particularly to Syria because his son “doesn’t like it.”
Hilton was unpersuaded and ordered Soueid held pending trial which he set for March 5, 2012.
Over the past seven month, Syrians around the world have held demonstrations in support of protests in Syria demanding an end to Bashar’s autocratic rule.
The United Nations says the government crackdown on protesters has killed 3,000 people. Damascus says hundreds of security personnel have been killed by armed groups seeking to foment sectarian conflict.
Prosecutors called Soueid an “extension of the government of Syria.” They pointed to a recently issued passport by the Syrian embassy and his apparent access to funds overseas as evidence that he was a flight risk.
“He clearly has designs to flee,” Dennis Fitzpatrick, an assistant U.S. attorney, told the judge.
Soueid, dressed in a green prison jumpsuit, bowed his head after the judge’s decision, running his hands through his hair. As he was escorted from the courtroom, he mouthed “it’s OK” and gave a “thumbs up” gesture to family members in the audience.
Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Mohammad Zargham