updated 5/7/2004 2:06:37 PM ET 2004-05-07T18:06:37

A cigarette smuggler is challenging testimony by a key prosecution witness in the post-Sept. 11 convictions of three Moroccan immigrants, a published report said.

According to Friday’s Detroit Free Press, smuggler Thamir Zaia said it was he, not defendant Karim Koubriti, who went shopping for cigarettes with a mentally ill man whose notebook had what the government says were sketches of possible terrorist targets.

The notebook, owned by a now-dead mentally ill Yemeni immigrant named Ali Mohammed Ali Ahmed, was a major part of the prosecution’s case. A prosecution witness, Sam’s Club store manager Carolyn Sadowski, was the only witness to link him with the defendants. Defense lawyers say their clients did not know Ahmed.

U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen is considering requests for a new trial by Koubriti and the other two immigrants, convicted in June 2003 in the first trial to result from the federal probe of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

At trial, Sadowski identified Koubriti as the man who accompanied Ahmed to buy more than $3,000 worth of cigarettes. She said Koubriti showed her a driver’s license belonging to Zaia.

The Free Press, citing unidentified people familiar with the case, said Zaia didn’t tell the FBI about the alleged misidentification until March 2.

‘She was wrong’
“She was wrong,” a federal law enforcement employee told the newspaper. The employee and others spoke on condition of anonymity, citing an order by Rosen forbidding discussion of confidential information in the case.

Koubriti, 25, was convicted along with Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, 38, of conspiring to provide material support to terrorism. Ahmed Hannan, 35, was convicted of document fraud, and a fourth man was acquitted.

The Bush administration hailed the convictions as a victory in the war on terror. But defense lawyers requested a new trial, saying prosecutors withheld witnesses and evidence crucial to the defense.

Neither Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Straus, who is handling the case, nor a lawyer for Zaia immediately responded to messages left Friday seeking comment.

Zaia, his lawyer, Sadowski and federal officials declined to comment to the newspaper, the article said.

Lie detector test reportedly failed
The sources told the Free Press that Zaia flunked a lie detector test but that they still believed Sadowski was mistaken.

The sources said Zaia, an Iraqi immigrant, told the FBI he bought a Sam’s Club membership for a man named “Ali” or “Achmed” so the man could sign bad checks to buy cigarettes. Zaia said the man was from Yemen and that he knew him from a restaurant. Zaia said he paid the man $20 to $40 when the man went with Zaia to buy cigarettes.

Zaia said he quit using the Yemeni man in the scheme after the checks bounced and the bank closed the account. During the FBI interview, Zaia identified a photo of Ali Ahmed.

Ali Ahmed’s notebook contained what the government said were pictures of possible targets for terror attacks, including a military hospital in Jordan and an American air base in Turkey. He died in 2001 in an apparent suicide at age 22.

Prosecutors had used Sadowski’s testimony to bolster their argument that the defendants used cigarettes to manipulate Ali Ahmed into signing the notebook to conceal its ownership and purpose.

Defense lawyers say Ahmed died a month before Koubriti and Hannan moved from Canton, Ohio, into Ali Ahmed’s old apartment in Dearborn.

In October 2002, Zaia was sentenced to two years’ probation for his role in a scheme to smuggle cigarettes from North Carolina to Michigan.

Since then, he has been charged in two check-cashing schemes. He is free on bond. The cases are pending.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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