CHICAGO – On the 12th floor of the federal courthouse in Chicago, a hearing is taking place in a terrorist money-laundering case that has all the intrigue of a novel, complete with Israeli agents, disguises and allegations of torture.
But two guards block the public from entering the hallway leading to U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve’s courtroom, their impromptu post fashioned from a long table that stops traffic.
“Sorry, we’re not letting anyone through,” one of the men said Tuesday. “Come back later in the week.” The hearing remained closed Wednesday.
Although experts say judges frequently take special precautions to protect witnesses, St. Eve’s decision to bar the press and public from the pretrial hearing to better safeguard the Israeli agents against terrorist reprisals has raised many eyebrows and incensed some civil-liberties advocates.
“I don’t believe serving the interest of a foreign intelligence agency is high priority for the American people,” said Ahmed Rehab, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago. “A higher priority is a fair and open trial guaranteed in the Constitution.”
The pretrial hearing involves Muhammad Salah, a Bridgeview, Ill., man charged with laundering money for the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Federal prosecutors want to use as evidence against Salah a confession obtained by members of the Israel Security Agency in 1993 after he was arrested there. Salah has said that the agents tortured him into confessing.
Over defense objections, St. Eve ruled in January that she would close the courtroom for two Israeli agents to testify under heavy security, pseudonyms and “light disguises.”
Prosecutors say the measures are needed to protect the Israelis from possible retribution by Hamas terrorists. Salah’s attorneys argue their client has a constitutional right to confront his accusers.
Dick Carelli, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington, said it is not rare for judges to take special precautions – including disguises or closing the court – to ensure the safety of witnesses.
What is rare about the Salah case, according to Northwestern University law professor Ron Allen, is St. Eve’s decision to block the agents’ testimony from the public. “It’s very rare because we have such a strong tradition of openness, although most cases are run-of-the-mill cases,” he said.
Salah can remain in the courtroom during the testimony and his attorneys can cross-examine the witnesses, although he won’t know the agents’ true identities, St. Eve ruled.
Prosecutors will make transcripts of the testimony public – minus material that the government deems classified under the federal Classified Information Procedures Act – within seven days after the final transcript is issued.
Salah was indicted in August 2004 along with Abdelhaleem Hasan Abdelraziq Ashqar of Alexandria, Va., and Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, believed to be living in Damascus, Syria.
Ashqar attorney Thomas Anthony Durkin attended part of Monday’s hearing and declined to comment on the specifics of the proceedings, but he said they left him feeling uneasy.
“I found it very disquieting, and I walked away with a far greater appreciation for the right to a public trial,” Durkin said. “The normal flow of people in and out of the courtroom was missing.”
St. Eve declined to comment through a spokesman, and Mark Gregoline, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service in Chicago, said his office does not comment on security measures.
Salah’s trial is scheduled for October.
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