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Saudi bombing suspect changes mind, pleads not guilty

Hani al-Sayegh

U.S. could deport him for violating plea agreement

July 30, 1997
Web posted at: 7:28 p.m. EDT (2328 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Saudi Arabian man suspected of helping carry out a 1996 bombing that killed 19 U.S. airmen has backed out of a plea agreement with U.S. officials -- exposing him to the possibility of losing his head back in his homeland.

In a Washington courtroom Wednesday, Hani al-Sayegh pleaded not guilty to a charge of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens in Saudi Arabia. A month ago, while being held in Canada and facing deportation to Saudi Arabia, al-Sayegh agreed to be returned to the United States, enter a guilty plea to that charge and cooperate with U.S. counterterrorism officials.

But Wednesday, al-Sayegh's U.S. lawyer said his client "didn't understand the consequences" of the guilty plea.

"He didn't understand American jurisprudence," said Frank Carter. "He did understand his option was to come to the United States or to go to Saudi Arabia and face possible execution."

With the not guilty plea, U.S. prosecutors say al-Sayegh breached the plea agreement. They can now pursue more serious charges or try to deport al-Sayegh to Saudi Arabia. However, Carter indicated that al-Sayegh may try to obtain political asylum in the United States to prevent deportation.

A Shiite Muslim involved in political protests against the Saudi ruling family, al-Sayegh said he fears execution if he is forced to return to Saudi Arabia, where beheading is among the punishments meted out for murder.

Khobar Towers bombing

Al-Sayegh was identified in Canadian court documents as the suspected driver of a car that gave the go-ahead signal to carry out the truck bombing of the Khobar Towers complex in Dhahran, where U.S. military personnel were housed. He claims to have been in Iran at the time of the Khobar bombing.

Under terms of the plea bargain, U.S. prosecutors didn't charge al-Sayegh with the Khobar bombing. Rather, they charged him with a single count related to an earlier alleged conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens, which was never carried out.

Carter said the government has no proof to support those charges, only al-Sayegh's statements, which the lawyer contends were "illegally obtained."

U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan ordered al-Sayegh held without bond in a Washington jail and set a November 3 trial date.

Reporter Terry Frieden contributed to this report.

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