A foreign student who was swept up in an FBI dragnet after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was acquitted Friday of lying to a grand jury to obscure his connections to two of the hijackers.
Osama Awadallah, 26, broke out in a broad smile as the verdict was read, then turned and beamed at his father crying in the audience. "I knew that justice would prevail," he told reporters.
Investigators concluded that Awadallah had known two of the hijackers in San Diego, where he attends college, but only as acquaintances.
Federal prosecutors alleged that Awadallah tried to minimize the relationships in grand jury testimony Oct. 10, 2001, but his attorneys argued that their client, exhausted, confused and frightened after being detained for weeks in solitary confinement, simply had a memory lapse.
Awadallah, a Muslim, Venezuela-born Jordanian citizen, had been handcuffed to a chair while he testified before the New York grand jury, even though he had not been charged with any crime.
Lone juror prevented conviction
He would have been convicted last spring had a lone juror not held out for acquittal, forcing a mistrial. Jurors in his retrial, however, acquitted him after deliberating just a few hours over two days.
Some of the jurors said after the verdict they were appalled at the way Awadallah was treated by the government, and believed the statements he made during his grand jury session were prompted by fear and confusion.
"The treatment he received as a witness, a material witness, was really unconscionable, and it had to affect his testimony," said juror Nancy Sosnow, 64, of the Bronx.
Federal prosecutors declined to comment.
Awadallah acknowledged knowing Nawaf al-Hazmi, who helped seize the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. The two perjury counts stem from two statements he made to the grand jury regarding another hijacker, Khalid al-Mihdhar.
Awadallah said he couldn't remember the name of a man he frequently saw with al-Hazmi. When confronted with a school examination booklet in which he appeared to have written about meeting men named Nawaf and Khalid, Awadallah initially claimed it wasn't his handwriting.
Later, he returned to the grand jury and said he had been mistaken on both points. He did recall meeting someone named Khalid, and he had written that name in his school booklet.
Jury forewoman Alma Weinstein, 52, of Rockland County, said the panel wasn't convinced that the statements at issue in the case were of any importance to the terror probe. At the trial, prosecutors acknowledged that investigators already knew the identities of all of the hijackers when they questioned Awadallah.
Phone number found in al-Hazmi’s car
Awadallah had lived in the same San Diego community as al-Hazmi. They attended the same mosque and saw each other dozens of times in 2000 before al-Hazmi moved to Virginia. FBI agents became curious about Awadallah when they found his phone number in al-Hazmi's car.
Awadallah, who has lived in the U.S. since 1999 and whose father is a U.S. citizen, was arrested 10 days after the attacks. After he was detained as a material witness, he was held in solitary confinement, subjected to strip searches and kept from communicating with his family. He also claimed he was beaten by guards.
Awadallah, who spent 83 days in jail before a judge ordered him released on bail, said after the verdict that he feels he was mistreated.
"It shouldn't happen to anyone else. Things like this cannot be justified," he said.
He added, though, that he had no plans of leaving the United States or San Diego.
"There's no better place to be," he said, smiling.
The perjury charges were initially thrown out by a judge who concluded that Awadallah had been illegally detained, but the case was later reinstated by an appeals court.
The judge said before the trial that if Awadallah were convicted he could face deportation but little or no prison time.