- Syrian-born man, termed flight risk, remains in jail
- U.S. citizen could face a maximum of 40 years if convicted
- The charges come amid Syria's tough crackdown on protesters
- Syria said defendant has never worked for government
A Syrian-born naturalized U.S. citizen pleaded not guilty Friday to charges he spied on anti-Syrian government protesters in the United States.
Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, 47, allegedly provided video and audio recordings of demonstrators to Syrian intelligence officials, according to the indictment against him.
U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton ruled that Soueid could be a flight risk and will remain in jail pending his trial, which is scheduled for March 5, 2012.
Hilton reversed a ruling by a magistrate judge last week that Soueid, who has been in jail since his arrest on October 11, could be released on home detention.
Soueid's lawyer, Haytham Faraj, argued his client would not flee to Syria. "Mr. Soueid has a beautiful family here in Virginia, including two 15-year-old boys who are here in this courtroom," said Faraj.
Soueid, his wife and children reside in Leesburg. "This is their home. This is where they belong," Faraj said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Fitzpatrick argued that Soueid would be likely to try to escape the country for Syria. He told the court that Soueid had tried to obtain a Syrian passport after he returned from a trip to Syria this summer.
Fitzpatrick also told the court that after Soueid came back from Syria he signed up to use a shooting range in Virginia and that he held an animosity toward two people who Fitzpatrick did not identify. According to the prosecutor, Soueid had a conversation with his alleged Syrian intelligence "handler" and bragged he planned to become an accurate marksman.
Soueid is a "real danger to the community and that the evidence for him to flee was overwhelming," Fitzpatrick said.
Faraj said Soueid had never engaged in violent activity.
In making his ruling to keep the defendant in jail Judge Hilton did not agree with all of the prosecutor's arguments, saying he questioned whether Soueid was a danger to the community. But the judge agreed "there was strong evidence he represented a risk of flight."
Faraj said Soueid does support the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and had made a trip to Syria this summer with prominent Syrian Americans. According to Faraj, that is when a picture was taken showing Soueid shaking hands with Assad. Faraj said this was not the same trip led by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, but occurred during nearly the same time frame.
Last week, the government entered the picture of Soueid and Assad into the court record. Prosecutors allege the Syrian government paid for Soueid's trip and that he had a private meeting with Assad.
The Syrian government issued a statement after Soueid was arrested, saying he never worked for the Syrian government and calling the charges "absolutely baseless and totally unacceptable."
Faraj told CNN following the hearing he is considering whether to appeal Soueid's continued detention to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. He acknowledged such appeals are rarely successful.
Soueid is charged with conspiring to act and acting as an agent of the Syrian government without registering his status as required by U.S. law. He's also charged with making false statements to federal agents and on a firearms purchase form. If convicted on all counts, he could face a maximum of 40 years in prison.
The indictment includes a message Soueid allegedly sent to a co-conspirator stating "violence against protestors was justified, raiding homes of protestors was justified, and that any method should be used to deal with the protestors."