U.S. attorney general under fire for FBI sting comments

PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - Lawyers for a Somali-born teen charged in an alleged plot to bomb a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony are seeking a court order to restrict U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder from commenting on the case.

The motion filed in federal court on Monday on behalf of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, accuses Holder of prejudicing the pool of potential jurors with remarks to reporters in which he strongly denied suggestions that the suspect was a victim of government entrapment.

Defense lawyers assert in their filing, made public on Tuesday, that Holder’s statements violate constraints placed on pretrial public comments by prosecutors under federal rules and the due-process clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The seven-page filing seeks a court order “prohibiting the attorney general from engaging in inappropriate pretrial comment.”

“The attorney general’s remarks go far beyond the fact of the indictment and any legitimate policy issues, instead discussing the merits of Mr. Mohamud’s case,” the motion states.

Mohamud, who remains in federal custody, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he tried to detonate what he thought was a car bomb -- actually a fake explosive supplied by undercover agents -- during a crowded tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon, on November 26.

His arrest at the event that day capped an elaborate FBI sting operation that federal investigators say revealed his determination to carry out mass murder.

His lawyers argued at his arraignment three days later that the government essentially had set up their client, a naturalized U.S. citizen who had attended Oregon State University, in what amounted to a case of entrapment.

But at a Washington news conference that day, Holder said Mohaumd had declined “a number of opportunities” to back out of the alleged bomb plot, adding, “I am confident that there is no entrapment here and no entrapment claim will be found to be successful.”

Holder spoke about the case again earlier this month when he strongly defended undercover FBI sting tactics in general and denied that the prosecution of Mohamud was a case of entrapment.

Defense lawyer Stephen Sady declined to say anything about the filing on Tuesday.

The Justice Department in Washington issued a statement on Tuesday saying the agency’s “comments have been appropriate and entirely consistent with our filings in court. We will answer the motion in court and look forward to trying the case there.”

Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; James Vicini in Washington also contributed to this report; Editing by Greg McCune