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Admitted ISIS supporter in Houston wants to retract guilty plea

September 12, 2018

A Palestinian refugee convicted of attempting to back Islamic State terrorists overseas is seeking a new federal trial, claiming he didn’t understand the consequences of violating the terms of supervised release when he pleaded guilty.

Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan alleges that U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes did not clearly advise him that he faced a possible life term for violating federal probation if he entered a guilty plea, according to court document filed Tuesday. Al Hardan, who had an Arabic interpreter for the proceeding, also says his court-appointed lawyer failed to ensure that the judge advised him of this possibility.

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However, David Adler, Al Hardan’s court-appointed trial lawyer, noted in an email that the judge appears to have warned Al Hardan about this scenario, and pointed to a verbatim excerpt of the hearing quoted in Al Hardan’s appellate brief.

In the document filed Tuesday with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Hughes is quoted as saying at Al Hardan’s 2016 plea hearing, “Now, the maximum penalty — I’m not saying this is what I’m going to give you — that the statute would allow on your plea of guilty is for you to be imprisoned for 20 years, fined $250,000 and supervised release with up to your — up to life and there is a $100 tax. Do you have any question about the punishment?”

After a back and forth with the judge, the defendant said he understood.

A spokesperson for U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick did not respond to a request for comment.

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Hughes sentenced the 25-year-old father in December 2017 to 16 years in prison and a lifetime of supervised release. He pleaded guilty on Oct. 17, 2016, to attempting to provide support to ISIS, admitting that he associated with jihadis, swore an oath to Islamic State terrorists, lied on a passport application about his affiliation with terrorists and stockpiled materials to make remote detonators at his West Houston apartment. He also accepted as fact the government’s accusation that he discussed decapitating Americans in support of the jihadist struggle.

David Sterman, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation who maintains a database on jihadist terrorism cases in the U.S., said it’s very common for defendants to plead guilty in these cases.

“You’ll often see appeals or statements of intent to appeal like this,” Sterman said. “It doesn’t surprise me — this seems relatively in line with the general legal wrangling over terrorism cases.”

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Sterman noted that almost none of the defendants dating back to the 9/11 terrorist attacks have been acquitted or successfully challenged a terrorism conviction on appeal.

Yolanda Jarmon, who was appointed to represent Al Hardan’s in the appeal, declined to comment. But she argued in a court filing that her client thought he faced at most 20 years in prison. He would not have entered a plea of guilty if he understood that a violation of supervised release could result in a lifetime in prison as opposed to the statutory maximum of 20 years the judge mentioned during his plea hearing, according to court documents.

gabrielle.banks@chron.com

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