A Syrian car salesman who made the Washington suburbs his home was sentenced Friday to 18 months in prison for acting as an unregistered agent of the Syrian intelligence service, the Mukhabarat. Mohamad Soueid pleaded guilty to collecting audio and video recordings of protests in the Washington, D.C., area against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and providing that material to Syrian intelligence.
Soueid pleaded guilty this past January — but that plea was sealed until sentencing. The government had asked for a six-year term; Soueid’s attorney sought a one-year sentence. U.S. District Court Judge Claude Milton handed down an 18-month prison term, including the nine months Soueid has already served since his arrest last October.
This week saw especially brutal fighting in the Syrian capital, Damascus, as rebels bombed a high-level meeting of the regime high command, killing four top security officials. The spiraling civil war there has become bloodier by the day since protests began in March, 2011. It was then, the initial indictment against Soueid alleged, that he began his work as an agent of Syrian intelligence, run out of the Syrian embassy in Washington.
Neil MacBride, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement: “Mr. Soueid betrayed this country to work on behalf of a state sponsor of terror. While the autocratic Syrian regime killed, kidnapped, intimidated and silenced thousands of its own citizens, Mr. Soueid spearheaded efforts to identify and intimidate those protesting against the Syrian government in the United States.”
Soueid’s federal public defender, Michael Nachmanoff, deemed the sentence a fair one, telling the Associated Press that “Mr. Soueid was motivated by a fear of Islamic extremism….This is a guy who believed, and still believes, that having Islamic extremists taking over is bad for Syria and bad for the U.S.”
Soueid’s original attorney, former U.S. Marine Haytham Faraj, left the case after Soueid was declared indigent last November. But he told the NewsHour on Friday: “I find the sentence laughable and magistrate Judge Jones’ words during the (October, 2011) detention hearing poignantly omniscient ‘at best Mr. Soueid is a low level operative.’ Neil Mc Bride and the [Assistant US Attorneys] working this case achieved nothing except wasting government resources and forcing a man to plead guilty to engaging in politically unpopular and inconvenient speech and activities. The trial judge saw the truth. He sentence[d] him to 18 months because he pled guilty. If he believed Mr. Soueid is what the government alleged him to be, Mr. Soueid would be going to jail for a much longer period.”
The NewsHour reported on Soueid’s case this past winter and on Syrian-Americans protesting in the U.S. whose families in Syria had been harmed, allegedly as a result of their demonstrations.
Syrian-American pianist and composer Malek Jandali was a featured performer last summer at a protests outside the White House. Days later, his parents in Damascus were severely beaten, and their home ransacked. They have since moved to the U.S., and Friday Jandali told the NewsHour that the guilty plea came as “no surprise to me….and without a doubt [the Syrian Embassy in Washington] is still spying on protestors.” Jandali contends that the many regime loyalists he says are in the United States are more dangerous than loyalists in Syria itself. “They enjoy the freedom of America but they use it to support a vicious dictator,” he said.
Jandali, who was threatened after both his performance at protests and the attack on his parents, says the threats continue unabated. “Believe it or not it’s more dangerous than before, because the regime and loyalists are more angry because they realize what’s going on. After the fall of the regime or the fall of Assad, it will be more dangerous for us Syrian-Americans here because they will feel defeated.” Jandali says 90 percent of his extended family has left Syria.
Asked if he would return to Syria anytime soon, Jandali said, “Of course. I am going back. I am finishing my Syrian symphony now that will be performed the day after the fall of Assad. That’s a reality and not a hope.”
See the NewsHour’s report, “Are Syrian Spies Operating on U.S. Soil?”