Syrian-American pleads not guilty to spying on protesters

A Syrian-American pleaded not guilty in US court Friday to charges that he spied on anti-Syrian regime protesters and handed recordings to Syrian intelligence in a bid to silence the opposition.

Mohammad Anas Haitham Soueid, 47, was remanded to custody by US District Judge Claude Hilton, who set a March 5 trial date. A federal grand jury charged him early this month with six counts including spying in the United States and Syria on activists opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The Leesburg, Virginia man, clad in a green prison jumpsuit, did not speak during the 30-minute hearing just outside Washington, and his attorney entered the plea.

US prosecutors argued that Soueid represented both a flight risk and a threat to the community, saying he made threats of reprisals against those who exposed his actions.

US Attorney Dennis Fitzpatrick also said authorities suspect that Soueid, a Syrian-born US citizen, was able to obtain a Syrian passport that would have enabled him to travel.

"He has every incentive in the world to leave. Not only does he have the incentive, he has the means," Fitzpatrick told the court.

The judge questioned whether Soueid posed a threat to the community, but agreed he was a flight risk and ordered him detained until trial.

Soueid was charged with conspiracy and acting as a Syrian government agent in the United States. He was also charged with two counts of providing false statements on a firearms purchase form and two counts of providing false statements to federal law enforcement.

The Syrian embassy has vehemently denied the accusations, chalking them up to a "campaign of distortion and fabrications."

Soueid was said to have ordered individuals to make audio and video recordings of protests in both Syria and the United States, and of conversations with activists that he would then pass on to Syrian intelligence agents.

If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison on the spying charges, 15 years for the firearms charge and 10 years for making false statements to federal investigators.

His trial comes amid escalating tensions between Damascus and Washington over the Syrian government's months-long bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

-AFP/NOW Lebanon

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