Tactics against USF pair decried

An attorney for one of the USF students calls threats against his client shameful.

By KEVIN GRAHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published September 10, 2007

TAMPA - Two University of South Florida students being held on federal explosives charges have endured threats of deportation, intimidation and harsh interrogation tactics by federal authorities, an attorney for one of the men said Sunday.

"All sorts of threats but very little evidence," said Andy Savage, a high-profile Charleston, S.C., attorney representing Youssef Megahed. "It's shameful, because it has terrorized this family. It's very discouraging that our country is now treating him, just because he has an Egyptian background, as though he's an automatic suspect."

Megahed and Ahmed Mohamed were threatened with being charged as enemy combatants or being sent to Egypt where they'd be tortured if they didn't cooperate with investigators, Savage said.

"It's unfair for the people of Tampa, just as it was totally unfair for the people of Charleston, to think ... that there is a reason to fear them," said Savage, who arrived Sunday in Tampa to meet with Megahed's family before they visited him for the first time at a Hillsborough County jail. Local attorneys will soon take the lead in defending the two suspended USF students. Savage said he and Lionel Lofton, a Charleston attorney representing Ahmed Abdellatif Sherif Mohamed, plan to turn over their cases to Tampa attorneys more familiar with the federal judges and courthouse here.

But first, Savage talked at length about the case against Megahed and Mohamed. The two were arrested Aug. 4, when a Berkeley County, S.C., sheriff's deputy stopped them for speeding near a naval base.

"Clearly this is a racial or ethnic profiling case," Savage said. "If this had been my son, if it was an Irish American kid who had been stopped in Berkeley County going 60 mph, he might have been ticketed. More likely they would say, 'Slow down son. Keep on going.' But they would never have had their car torn apart. They would never have been viewed as suspicious individuals."

Steve Cole, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa, declined to respond to Savage's comments. "We're going to obey the rules of the court and discuss the case in court," Cole said.

Savage came from Charleston to eastern Hillsborough County's Vandenberg Airport, where reporters waited with questions. He stood with Megahed's father, Samir, and older brother Yahia, who had come to welcome him, and detailed the next steps in the defense's case.

Investigators said they found pipe bombs in the students' trunk and a box of .22-caliber bullets inside the car. Savage said they did not have a weapon in the car and the men have said they were carrying fireworks.

An indictment handed up Aug. 29 by a Tampa federal grand jury charges both students with transporting explosive materials. Mohamed faces an additional charge of teaching or demonstrating the making of explosive devices.

"We have no idea what the evidence is. We only know these little bits and drabs that law enforcement has dribbled out about the case," Savage said. "They have examined, I'm sure by now, the compounds that were in the trunk and they know whether it was a minor amount or whether it was something that could be substantial that could cause lethal harm to someone in the community. The public should know that. Not just the defendants."

On Friday, a federal magistrate in Tampa rescheduled a detention hearing for this week because neither Megahed nor Mohamed had a lawyer present. Attorneys will use the hearing to ask a judge to release the students on bond.

"The policy of the Justice Department now in these cases, no matter how minor the charges, is to detain them for as long as you can and to keep them under duress and to investigate, investigate, investigate," Savage said. "It's an uphill battle, but it's one that can be won."

Savage also dismissed rumors that Mohamed had a criminal past in Egypt before the Department of Homeland Security cleared him on a student visa to study at USF.

"He's sponsored in America by the Egyptian government," Savage said. "That's why it's so ridiculous when people talk about the problems he may have had in Egypt, that he had been arrested there before or held on political charges. It's absolutely absurd. But like so many other things that are kind of rolling out in this case, you wonder the source of that information."

For now, Megahed and Mohamed remain in solitary confinement at the Falkenberg Road Jail. Savage said federal authorities ordered state detention officers in South Carolina to separate the men. The students refused to sign documents saying they had asked to be moved to isolated cells because they were afraid of the other inmates, Savage said.

"It was done to eliminate conversation back and forth between the two of them and to intimidate them," Savage said.

A Tampa federal judge agreed to keep them in isolation until the bond hearing, saying it appeared to be in their best interest at the moment.

Samir Megahed said little Sunday about the struggles his family has faced since his son's arrest. He said he's collapsed because of the news of Youssef Megahed's arrest but expressed relief to have his son back in Tampa.

"He breathes what is in my chest now," he said. "He breathes the same air I breath."

Kevin Graham can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com.