One of two suspended USF students facing federal explosives charges pleaded not guilty in a federal court Wednesday, while his codefendant – who recently retained a high-profile Tampa attorney – was granted an extension to enter a plea.
Youssef Megahed, 21, pleaded not guilty to transporting explosive materials at a hearing Wednesday morning.
Co-defendant Ahmed Mohamed, 26, also a suspended USF student, did not enter a plea for federal charges of teaching how to make and use an explosive device at the arraignment hearing Wednesday.
U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo agreed to extend Mohamed’s arraignment until Oct. 17, as defense attorney John Fitzgibbons – recently retained by the Egyptian Embassy to represent Mohamed – had not finalized the legal formalities between himself and the embassy.
Fitzgibbons, former Assistant U.S. Attorney, said that “there was at least one minister in Egypt involved” in the process. The embassy is providing Mohamed’s defense because the 26-year-old engineering graduate student is an Egyptian national and in the U.S. with a student visa.
Megahed, also an Egyptian citizen, will keep the U.S. public defender’s office as his counsel. Megahed has permanent resident status.
A call to the Egyptian Embassy seeking comment on the case or on Fitzgibbons was not returned.
Lost in translation
Fitzgibbons, who has represented local celebrities Debra LaFave and former American Idol contestant Jessica Sierra, also said Mohamed requested an interpreter in the past and would like an interpreter present for future proceedings.
According to Pizzo, past court records do not indicate any requests for an interpreter, but he said that the court would provide one. Megahed’s lawyer, Adam Allen, also requested an interpreter for his client.
Both Allen and Fitzgibbons agreed that a standby interpreter, who would clarify words or phrases on a case-by-case basis, was sufficient and that their clients didn’t need a simultaneous translator present.
Neither Fitzgibbons nor Allen thought their clients needed an interpreter present at Wednesday’s proceedings.
The trial is slated to begin Dec. 3, and the U.S. Attorney’s office must turn over any evidence – called the “discovery” – to Megahed’s defense by Oct. 12, said Allen.
That will give Allen about two weeks to work with evidence before an Oct. 31 deadline for filing pre-trial motions on the case.
Normally, Allen said, two weeks is enough time to review evidence, but he said concerns about translated evidence may require more time.
“The question is whether I believe their translations are accurate,” he said.
Mohamed and Megahed were arrested in Goose Creek, S.C. on Aug. 4 and subsequently faced state and federal explosives charges. The pair, originally stopped for speeding, was apprehended after a deputy searched their Toyota Camry and thought he had found pipe bombs.
At their indictment, it was revealed that Megahed and Mohamed had a mixture of corn syrup, cat box filler and potassium nitrate stuffed into PVC pipe, a box of bullets, gasoline and an electric drill in their trunk. Federal court documents also indicate that Mohamed’s laptop contained files and folders about explosives.
Mohamed also appeared in a YouTube video showing how to make a remote-controlled car into a detonating device for explosives, and refers to a remote-controlled toy boat-turned-detonator. The same toy boat thought to be in the video was found in Megahed’s New Tampa residence.
Some of the evidence against Megahed and Mohamed include audiotapes, in which the pair speaks Arabic.
If he is found guilty, Megahed faces jail time and deportation, Allen said.
Still, the family is eager to begin the trial and “to have this matter ultimately resolved,” Allen said.
“This is the first step in the process. We’re looking forward to receiving the discovery and having the case resolved in front of a jury of his peers,” he said.
A personal trial
Ahmed Bedier, executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), didn’t think Megahed’s not-guilty plea was unexpected.
“I think it was already expected that Megahed would plead not guilty,” he said. “It’s not really surprising.”
Yahia Megahed, Youssef’s brother, shared the same sentiment about the not guilty plea.
“Nothing happened today to have comment on,” Yahia Megahed said.
Speaking on a personal level and not for CAIR, Bedier further commented on Mohamed and his lawyer, saying Fitzgibbons was known for winning plea deals for his clients.
“I don’t remember the last time Mr. Fitzgibbons went to trial,” Bedier said.
Lionel Lofton, the Charleston, S.C.-based attorney initially retained by the Egyptian Embassy for Mohamed, said he wanted to represent Mohamed, “but the embassy was paying the bill.”
Lofton would not disclose the budget he quoted the embassy, but said he thought it reasonable compared to other attorneys.
Megahed’s father, Samir, said that he, his daughter Miriam, and his wife Ahlam were subpoenaed Saturday by two FBI agents who told them to appear in court today at 1:30 p.m., but that the U.S. Attorney’s office called Wednesday afternoon and cancelled the subpoena.
He said he didn’t know why the family was subpoenaed, and remained confident that his son would be exonerated.
“I think they will find everything is good with Youssef and (that) nothing in (the car) belongs to him,” he said. “You can ask them and all the evidence belongs to Mr. Mohamed and not our son. I think maybe they will drop the case, release him or (decide) he’s innocent.”
Victoria Bekiempis can be reached at (813) 974-2669 or firstname.lastname@example.org.