tampabay.com

Ramadan, hearing conflict

The worry: Some witnesses for Youssef Megahed can't make it.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published September 12, 2007


TAMPA - As the bail hearing approaches for two University of South Florida students facing federal explosives charges, one man's family sees a conflict between court and faith.

The family of engineering student Youssef Megahed worries that friends and supporters will not be able to attend the hearing because of the date and time: Friday at 2 p.m. That's right in the middle of a mandatory Muslim prayer service at the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

"Many people wanted to be witnesses for Youssef," said his brother, Yahia Megahed. "They know his good fellowship, but because of the timing I think it will not be possible."

Megahed, 21, and Ahmed Mohamed, 26, have been in custody since Aug. 4, when they were arrested in Goose Creek, S.C., accused of having pipe bombs in their car.

Yahia Megahed said his father called the federal clerk's office to ask about getting the time changed but was told it was too difficult. No formal request has been made to change the hearing, according to court records.

The family's Charleston, S.C., attorney, Andy Savage, said he had not asked for a change because he expects a Tampa lawyer to take over the case. He said more time might be needed regardless of the prayer service conflict so the new attorney can become familiar with the case.

The men were returned to Florida last week and have been held at the Falkenburg Road Jail without bail. Megahed's family believes he can show strong ties to the community and should be granted bail because he is not a flight risk.

It's unclear whether anyone plans to attend on behalf of Mohamed, a graduate student who came to the United States in January to study at USF.

The Egyptian embassy is helping him navigate the legal system and is trying to find out more about his background. Embassy officials have inquired with Egyptian law enforcement after hearing that Mohamed may have been arrested previously in Cairo, said embassy spokesman Karim Haggag. They had not received an answer by Tuesday.

Ahmed Bedier, executive director for Tampa's chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, has been a visible presence from the start. However, he will choose prayer over court.

"My decision is I have to go to my prayer service," Bedier said. "It's conflicting with an important day."

That type of commitment is common on such a day, similar to the Jewish Shabbat or to a Christian Sunday service, according to Bedier and the Islamic Society of the Tampa Bay Area.

Friday's prayer, which is mandatory for men, lasts from about 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. at mosques, said Pat Cruse, youth program coordinator at the society.

"Some men do not miss it," Cruse said. "They've missed their jobs because of it."

But a show of community support would be important at a bail hearing, said lawyer Stephen Crawford. "I've always liked to give the judge visual confirmation that my client enjoys community support," he said. "Here are people who've taken time out of their busy schedule. That's going to make a judge feel more likely to let them out."

Lawyer Robin Rosenberg said Megahed's family shouldn't worry too much about people not being able to attend the hearing.

"That doesn't mean they don't have connections to the community," Rosenberg said. "There are a lot of factors that the court will consider in setting the bail. That wouldn't give me cause for concern."

Despite his family's fears, Megahed isn't worried about the results of the hearing, his brother said. "He is confident he will be released on bond on Friday," Megahed said. "We'd like to have him back as soon as possible."

News researcher John Martin and staff writer Kevin Graham contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at (813) 226-3373.