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Student accused of transporting explosives to go on trial in US
Published in Daily News Egypt on 05 - 05 - 2008

TAMPA, Florida: Engineering student Youssef Samir Megahed has been in jail for more than eight months - a wild detour from the seemingly innocuous road trip to see Atlantic Coast beaches that he says he and a friend were enjoying.
The US government views the trip differently, accusing Megahed and Ahmed Abdellatif Sherif Mohamed of transporting explosives materials in the trunk of their car as they traveled through South Carolina.
While the pair sat side-by-side during the police traffic stop that led to their arrests, Megahed is scheduled to be the first to face a federal jury when his trial begins this week. He is charged with illegally transporting explosives and illegally possessing a destructive device.
Their arrests sparked fears of a terrorist motive since the men were stopped roughly 10 km from a naval weapons facility. But the government has not indicated the men were planning an attack, and only Mohamed faces terrorism-related charges.
Megahed, a student at the University of South Florida, is a permanent US resident from Egypt. Mohamed, who is also from Egypt, is in the US on a student visa.
Megahed was nearing graduation when he and Mohamed left Tampa last August. The pair claim they were on a sightseeing trip and were relying on GPS for directions and to help them find Murphy Gas Stations so they could buy cheap fuel with gift cards.
Sheriff s deputy James Lamar Blakely stopped the pair for speeding near Charleston, South Carolina, and has said he grew suspicious in part because he saw Megahed hurriedly slam a laptop computer shut.
A search of the car uncovered bullets and items in the trunk of the car that were originally called pipe bombs. Attorneys for the students say the items were four plastic pipes containing a mixture of sugar, potassium nitrate and cat litter, which along with fuses would be used for homemade, low-grade fireworks.
An FBI laboratory analysis determined the items were a pyrotechnic mixture that burned but did not explode in tests.
Prosecutors have argued in written court filings that if the materials were packed differently, they could have exploded. Both sides have squabbled over whether the components meet the government s definition of explosives.
There s doubt, said Adam Allen, a federal public defender representing Megahed. Prosecutors declined to comment on the case.
Allen also contends that Megahed, 22, did not know about the items in the trunk.
Defense attorneys have repeatedly attempted to dismiss evidence. They failed to persuade a judge to throw out the charges because Blakely called the students damn Taliban in a conversation with a fellow officer and joked that they probably had bombs strapped to them. The comments are unlikely to become a factor during trial.
The case is being tried in Tampa because it is where both men lived and attended school.
Megahed s attorneys have also asked a judge to throw out evidence retrieved from three computers seized at the home of Megahed s parents. It is unclear what information the computers contain, but defense attorneys wrote in a motion that authorities did not have consent to search them.
Allen played down the importance of separate trials for the students, saying that they wanted to prove Megahed s innocence as soon as possible. He faces 20 years in prison if convicted of both charges.
But the separation will keep jurors deciding Megahed s fate from hearing about evidence and testimony regarding terrorism-related charges that Mohamed faces. The 26-year-old, who has also been jailed since August, is accused of making a video that demonstrates how to turn remote-controlled devices into bomb detonators. The video was found on a laptop seized during the South Carolina traffic stop and had been posted on the video-sharing Web site YouTube.
A grand jury indicted Mohamed on additional charges in April, including providing material support to terrorism, carrying a destructive device relating to that support of terrorism, and two counts of possessing a firearm in violation of his visa rules. His trial is scheduled for July.
Allen declined to discuss the strategy of Megahed s defense, but court filings indicate that gas receipts and information downloaded from a GPS machine in the car will likely be used to corroborate the students story.
Charles Rose, a professor at the Stetson University School of Law who has been following the case, said much of the government s evidence against Megahed seems circumstantial.
They re going to struggle with showing that he s something more than just a guy who was in the car, Rose said.
But he said prosecutors filed additional charges to ensure a conviction, which could be used to compel Megahed to testify against his friend.
The evidence already released seems to point to two college students who were foolish but not necessarily criminals, Rose said. This will end like almost every terrorist case since 9/11 - with a fizzle and not a bang.


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