Terror Suspect Plans Guilty Plea in Attack on Federal Jail Guard
A man suspected by the government of being a senior aide to Osama bin Laden plans to plead guilty today to charges that he tried to murder a federal jail guard in Manhattan in late 2000, according to people familiar with the case.
The defendant, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, whose assault trial is scheduled to begin next week in Federal District Court in Manhattan, still faces terrorism-conspiracy charges, which are not covered by the plea.
Mr. Salim, 44, has been described by prosecutors as one of the earliest and most senior advisers to Mr. bin Laden. The government has said he helped run businesses that were used to generate money and provide cover for Al Qaeda, Mr. bin Laden's terror network, and offered Mr. bin Laden's followers religious justification for terrorist actions.
It was not clear how long Mr. Salim's plea has been in the making, and it is possible it could fall through. He could also change his mind today, and decide to face trial. And any guilty plea must be approved by the judge, Deborah A. Batts.
Neither Mr. Salim's lawyer, Richard B. Lind, nor a spokesman for the United States attorney's office would comment last night, and it was not immediately evident why Mr. Salim has decided to plead guilty in the assault case.
There is no indication that Mr. Salim has agreed to cooperate in the investigation of Mr. bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and the plea would likely bring Mr. Salim a life prison sentence in the attempt to murder a federal official.
But Mr. Salim's lawyer could argue that he should receive a lighter sentence in return for a guilty plea, and it may be that Mr. Salim sees a plea as a way to improve his conditions in jail.
Mr. Salim has long complained that he has been singled out for retaliation by the authorities in the Metropolitan Correctional Center since he was accused in the Nov. 1, 2000, attack, which occurred on 10 South, the most secure wing of the jail. In the assault, a correctional officer, Louis Pepe, was stabbed in the eye with a comb, fashioned into a knife, and suffered severe brain damage.
In recent months, Mr. Salim has also complained that he has been handcuffed and shackled when meeting with his lawyers, hampering his ability to assist in his defense.
Mr. Salim may believe that by pleading guilty, he can be sent to another federal prison, where his treatment might improve.
Mr. Salim had also tried unsuccessfully to have his assault trial moved from New York City, arguing that jurors would be prejudiced because of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. But Judge Batts rejected his request, saying a careful inquiry into the views of prospective jurors would ensure a fair trial.
The government has said that the attack on Officer Pepe was part of a plot to take hostages and win the release of other prisoners in the jail. Prosecutors have said they also seized a handwritten note from Mr. Salim's cell that said, "We have captured the tenth flr. in the MCC and we have several lawyers and officials."
The note said that if the government was concerned about the safety of its citizens, "it has to comply with all our demands," according to the indictment.
Prosecutors have said that Mr. Salim was aided in the assault by Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, who was convicted in the embassy bombings trial.
Not every plea in the bin Laden investigations has been accepted in court. For example, in 2000, Wadih El-Hage, a former personal secretary to Mr. bin Laden, tried to plead guilty before his trial in the embassy bombings conspiracy case.
Mr. El-Hage said in court that he was pleading guilty because he did not want to undergo the humiliation of coming to court daily, waiting in cold holding cells, and being strip-searched. But the judge, Leonard B. Sand, refused to accept his plea, concluding that Mr. El-Hage did not actually believe he was guilty of the charges against him. (Mr. El-Hage was later convicted at trial, and sentenced to life in prison.)
A plea by Mr. Salim could pose an intriguing dilemma for prosecutors. Like other terrorism defendants, Mr. Salim has been held under highly restrictive conditions, barred from communicating with virtually all outsiders because of the concern that he might try to send messages to terrorists or incite further violence.
But in pleading guilty, defendants are traditionally allowed to speak in court, and admit their crimes. It is not known whether prosecutors will seek to limit any statement he makes.