US judge considers motion to block evidence in terrorism case of ex-UF student

A federal judge is considering a request by a former University of Florida student to block prosecutors from using his own statements to the FBI years ago in his upcoming terrorism trial in the Middle East.

It’s the latest twist in the legal case against 34-year-old Mohammad Fathi Suliman, which has turned into a full-blown, complicated courtroom drama.

“If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it’s a duck,” Assistant US Attorney Stephen Kunz told FBI Special Agent David Collins on the witness stand for a hearing in the case last week.

“The duck becomes a terrorist,” Collins replied.

Suliman – who is accused of traveling abroad from Florida in 2014 to join ISIS fighters in Syria – told the judge he wanted to act as his own lawyer, then said he was not qualified to represent himself. Suleiman has also sought delay in cases where he has complained that his trial is taking too long to release him. His trial has now been rescheduled to begin in February.

Suliman clashed with court-appointed public defender Darren Johnson, and the judge removed him from the case last week. Suliman hired a private lawyer, Fritz Scheller, who promised the judge he would see the case through to the end — “the whole shabang,” he said.

Scheller declined to discuss the case.

Suliman said she wants the case against her mother dismissed because she needs to take care of her and wants to be a presence in her daughter’s life.

“After Allah, the Almighty and Merciful God and His Messenger Muhammad,” he wrote in court papers, “my mother and daughter are the two most beloved in my life and I adore them.”

On at least two occasions in September and October, Suliman offered to plead guilty in the case and quickly changed his mind. Suliman faces up to 20 years and a $250,000 fine. Courtroom machinations appear to be testing the judge’s patience, with the case last month having a “strange procedural history”.

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Suliman, who briefly attended Santa Fe College in Gainesville, encouraged US District Judge Allen Winsor in handwritten letters to convert to Islam. His case was put on hold for 17 months until September while he received psychiatric treatment. Suliman said in court papers that he suffers from bipolar disorder, but told the judge he had no problems when properly medicated.

In court last week, Collins said Suliman was lucid and aware of their conversation when he spoke to Suliman in Sudan. Suleiman agreed to talk, he was medicated and fit enough to talk. At one point in their conversation, Suliman said he had a manic episode while trying to cross the border into Syria. Collins said on the stand that Suliman gets high when having episodes and wants to “change the world.”

Prosecutors at last week’s trial focused on whether they could be used as evidence in their case testimony to FBI agents overseas before Suleiman was arrested and charged with terrorism. Suliman visited passport offices in Turkey in 2011 and in Sudan in 2018. Suliman wants to block prosecutors from using what he said in a 2018 meeting with the FBI in Sudan.

A judge has yet to rule on whether those statements are admissible at trial.

During the trial, Suliman was conspicuously unresponsive when questioned by his attorney and the prosecution. Collins confirmed in his testimony that Suliman and his mother were unaware that the interview was being recorded with two separate devices: a digital recorder and his government-issued Android.

Collins said the three-hour interview was voluntary. When Scheller questioned why he didn’t tell Suliman he was being recorded, Collins said he wasn’t sure if the equipment would work properly and if the technology would fail.

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“At the end of the day when we’re done, he’s free to leave,” Collins said.

When he first approached Suliman and his mother, Collins said the man’s mother’s face lit up because they had had positive interactions when Collins had previously spoken to her. Unarmed, unarmed and non-threatening, the three met amicably, Collins said.

Suleiman sat motionless facing the judge.

In a 2011 interview, Suleiman asked for help to get from Turkey to Somalia after being denied boarding. He said he was familiar with Anwar al-Awlaki, an American who joined al Qaeda and became a major propagandist and recruiter for anti-Western terrorist groups. Al-Awlaki was killed in a CIA drone strike six weeks after Suliman’s conversation about him.

Suliman told the FBI in 2011 that he had previously emailed al-Awlaki from his Santa Fe school account asking if someone with mental illness could participate in jihad, but he blamed another man — identified only as “Siddiq” in court papers. The government described the hacking of his email account in Florida and the sending of other messages as “further incriminating.”

Suliman attended the UF College of Agriculture and Life Sciences for two semesters in 2005 and 2006. He attended classes at Santa Fe College from 2011 to 2014, seeking an associates degree in psychology, which he never completed.

While living in Florida, Suliman began researching how to travel to Syria when ISIS declared its re-establishment of a caliphate, the FBI said. It said Suliman traveled to Turkey in 2014 – keeping his plans a secret from family and friends – planning to cross into Syria illegally. Turkish authorities arrested him and others on a bus crossing the border.

Turkey deported Suliman to Sudan five days later, and two years later informed the US government of Suliman’s arrest on the Syrian border. When the US warrant was issued for Suleiman in 2020, he was living in India. Arrested in Bangalore in 2021 and extradited to America

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In 2018, in Sudan, Suliman spoke to the FBI at the embassy when he applied for a new passport after his expired. He was told the FBI was not arresting him and could leave the building at any time, then spoke to Suliman about his efforts to reach Syria in 2014. Suliman signed a three-page statement written by Collins summarizing their conversation.

“This is your version of what was said in those three hours,” Scheller told Collins.

By the end of the ad, the pen appeared to be running out of ink. Scheller joked during the trial that the FBI seemed underfunded, drawing laughs from the courtroom and from the judge.

Suliman was charged with providing material support to terrorism, a federal statute that does not require proof that a defendant engaged in terrorism or planned to do so.

Suliman wrote complaints to the judge about the lack of a speedy trial, but his actions and requests to find a new lawyer contributed to the trial’s delay. At one point, the judge said Suliman’s complaints about his public defender were actually meant to delay the case.

“Suliman is more likely to use this issue in an attempt to delay Johnson than to mistrust him,” the judge wrote.

Scheller, the new defense lawyer, patted Suliman on the back as he was led out of the courtroom by a US marshal at the end of the trial.

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This article was produced by Fresh Take Florida, the news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Reporters can be contacted at [email protected] And [email protected]. You can donate to support our students Here.

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