Accused of terrorism, soccer player is ‘a free man’ but still in limbo

A former professional soccer player was brought to the United States 10 years ago from Belgium, accused of plotting a mass murder for al-Qaeda. On Friday, he was acquitted of all charges in federal court in DC. But Nizar Trabelsi remains in limbo, isolated in a prison on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. What happens when the US government considers someone a terrorist but a jury finds otherwise?

The government says he should go to his home country of Tunisia, where he faces another 10-year prison sentence. His lawyers say he should go to Belgium, where his wife and children are, and in the meantime they are no longer treating him as if he is guilty.

The shoe attacker testified in his defense. He was acquitted.

Trabelsi is “a free man,” defense attorney Sabrina Shroff said in court Monday. He “should no longer be shackled … should not be detained” under “Special Administrative Measures,” an extremely restrictive form of solitary confinement often imposed on terror suspects.

“He would like to talk to his wife, he would like to talk to his children and he would certainly like to talk to his lawyer in Europe,” he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Saunders told the court that Trabelsi should be picked up from jail within 48 hours by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Saunders said he assumed Trabelsi would be sent to his home country of Tunisia, where he was convicted in absentia of belonging to a terrorist group and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Shroff responded that “the government is well aware” that Trabelsi cannot be sent to Tunisia or any third country without Belgian approval, the Belgian government has requested that Trabelsi be returned to Europe and “Mr. Trabelsi has repeatedly indicated that it will be tortured if sent back to Tunisia.”

Both Saunders and Judge Randolph Moss said what happens to Trabelsi in immigration custody is outside their jurisdiction. Shroff said he is seeking pro bono immigration counsel for further assistance.

Ashley Deeks, a law professor at the University of Virginia who previously handled international extradition as a State Department legal adviser, said she knew of no other case in which someone was brought to the United States to be tried and acquitted

“The amount of resources it takes to get someone here through extradition is high,” he said. “The United States only seeks to extradite people when they are confident they will get a conviction. I suspect the government was surprised by this outcome.”

Dennis Fitzpatrick, a former federal prosecutor who handled multiple cases of defendants extradited from abroad, said that possibility is part of the calculation made by the Justice Department’s Homeland Security Division in deciding on charges for foreigners.

“His status as a non-US citizen, with no ties to the US, would definitely come into that risk analysis,” he said.

Trabelsi moved to Germany in 1989 to play soccer; he then lived in several places, including Afghanistan, before landing in Belgium in the summer of 2001. That September, two days after the World Trade Center attacks, he was arrested, charged and convicted of planning a subsequent attack on Europe at a base that houses both Belgian and American soldiers. After 10 years in prison there, he was sent to the US to face similar charges; for the past decade he has been arguing from pre-trial detention that his extradition was illegal.

European courts agreed, ruling that he should never have been sent to the US because of the risk of inhumane treatment and because he was being tried twice for the same crimes. Last year the Belgian government was ordered to request their return. US courts rejected his appeals. But on Friday, after a six-week trial during which Trabelsi testified about his long confinement, a jury acquitted him of all charges.

“Mr. Trabelsi wants to return to Belgium,” Shroff said in a statement after court. “I am shocked that the government is saying he will be sent to Tunisia knowing full well that Mr. Trabelsi would be tortured as would his family.”

Dounia Alamat, who represents Trabelsi in Belgium, said they are asking the Belgian authorities “to be proactive in securing the return of Mr. Trabelsi.”

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