updated 4/7/2006 6:30:56 PM ET 2006-04-07T22:30:56

A Palestinian man faces federal charges of threatening President Bush over comments made while getting mental-health care, according to an indictment made public this week.

News of the indictment raised questions Friday about how to treat such comments by mental patients.

Federal grand jurors indicted Arafat Nijmeh on March 23 on two felony counts of “knowingly and willfully” threatening to harm Bush — first by telling two workers at his treatment center that he wanted to castrate Bush, then a day later to Secret Service agents notified by the center.

The indictment says Nijmeh told the agents that his threat “is not too harsh, considering what he has done to my country. If not that than maybe something else, you know?”

Nijmeh, 26, later said he was joking.

J. Steven Beckett, a University of Illinois law professor, said Nijmeh’s statements at the Alton Mental Health Center might be “delirious rantings of a mental patient.”

“It’s national security gone berserk,” Beckett said. He speculated that some details of the case have been kept secret, but added, “My immediate reaction here is, ‘Who’s nuts?”’

Randy Massey, the acting U.S. attorney for southern Illinois, did not immediately return a message seeking comment Friday.

Secret Service takes mental state into account
Eric Pingolt, who heads the Secret Service’s Springfield office, declined to discuss Nijmeh specifically. Generally, he said, the Secret Service takes all threats seriously and weighs factors including the suspect’s mental state or placement in a treatment center in deciding the threat’s validity and whether to get a prosecutor involved.

“Everything is judged case by case,” he said.

The Secret Service also considers the suspect’s background. Nijmeh was sentenced to three years in Illinois prison for recklessly discharging a firearm and in November 2004 got a year of probation for aggravated battery, St. Clair County Circuit Court records show.

Beckett said he doubted whether such wrongdoing makes Nijmeh’s alleged threats more credible.

“You would have to identify the threat as completely unrelated to the mental illness to objectively say it was delivered with criminal intent,” Beckett said.

Oscar Morgan of the National Mental Health Association said that while “we also have concerns” about prosecuting someone for something said during mental-health treatment, workers at such sites have a duty to warn authorities about any threats by name.

Nijmeh remained in custody Friday in Ullin, pending a bail hearing Monday in federal court here, his public defender Phil Kavanaugh said. Kavanaugh declined to discuss the case, saying Nijmeh plans to hire a private defense attorney.

If convicted, each felony count carries a possible five years in prison.

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