Salam Ibrahim el Zaatari, the 21-year-old Lebanese former art student who was held in solitary confinement for six weeks after a rusty artist's knife was found in his carry-on luggage before he boarded a flight, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to felony charges of trying to carry a weapon aboard an airplane and will voluntarily leave the United States in the next few days for Lebanon. The felony conviction means that el Zaatari may not be allowed back into the country for years or even decades and could also affect his ability to travel to other countries, according to one of his lawyers.
El Zaatari consistently maintained that he used the knife in creating his artwork and had simply forgotten that it was in his computer case. Federal prosecutors admitted that they did not believe el Zaatari, whose student visa had expired when he was arrested, had any links to terrorism or terrorists. Nevertheless, until Wednesday's plea agreement they had held him without bail in isolation as a flight risk.
Friends of el Zaatari were outraged by the deal, although happy that he was finally going to be released from jail.
Glenn Simon, a friend of el Zaatari who stood outside the federal courthouse wearing a pin of el Zaatari's face, said, "I don't think it's right. He was forced to compromise his integrity just so America feels safe. It's bullshit."
The plea agreement was worked out with both the Pittsburgh U.S. attorney's office and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). It stipulated that el Zaatari be sentenced to time served with no fine, debriefed by FBI agents, and leave the country under voluntary departure, as opposed to deportation. He could leave as early as Friday but not later than early next week. He will be in the custody of INS agents, who will accompany him until he reaches the flight that will take him out of the country, and will remain in detention until his departure.
Asked by the judge at the hearing if he had anything to say, the former Art Institute of Pittsburgh student spoke publicly for the first time. In a contrite, polite voice he said he was sorry for what he had done and for the trouble he had caused.
Asked why his client pleaded guilty to the charge, El Zaatari's attorney Anthony Mariani said, "Here's a 21-year-old young man half a world away from his home, sitting in a 23-hour-a-day lockdown. You have to consider that."
Mariani produced a picture of the knife, the blade of which was extremely rusty from age and lack of use. Mariani claimed that the blade was dull.
Mariani said that his client has no knowledge of past terrorist acts or anyone related to terrorist activity. "He could offer no information because he knows nothing about anything in that area. It was clear to me that the U.S. attorney and the FBI were satisfied with the session." He pointed out that while growing up in Lebanon, el Zaatari was surrounded by conflict and violence, but he and his brother and sister were "raised to stay away from all factions, stay away from guns, to never be a part of that either here or there, no matter what."
Malek Francis, the head of the Lebanese American Congress and a friend of el Zaatari's, who will accompany him on the trip back to Lebanon to assure his safe return, said that the young man was coerced into a plea. "He was going crazy in there, locked in his cell 23 hours a day," Francis said. "If you lock a dog in a small room 23 hours a day, you'll go to jail. They denied him bail twice. It was their game to make him plead guilty. That was the only part of the case where the U.S. attorney did an excellent job." Francis said that he did not know what el Zaatari planned to do upon returning home.
In the hallway after the hearing, Jeff Mast, el Zaatari's former roommate, literally jumped for joy. He said he was surprised about the plea but had expected the government and el Zaatari to eventually work out some sort of arrangement before a trial. "I didn't expect anything until after New Year's," Mast said. "But I'm satisfied. He's going home to his family; he'll be with them for Christmas. That's what he was trying to do when he boarded that plane the first time."
A former girlfriend, Holly Spangler, said, "It took a big toll on him to be in jail. That's the bottom line. He wanted to go home." She also raised questions about how his arrest and incarceration unfolded: She claimed that one of the FBI agents who had originally questioned el Zaatari's roommates told them that from his initial reports, he didn't get the impression he was a terrorist. "He was racially profiled, that's why he's on the list," she said angrily. "His crime is the color of his skin."
Another former roommate, Heather Bull, was happy that her friend was being released but ambivalent about how it was done. "I'm not sure how I feel [about the plea]," she said. "But I do know that he needs to go home." When asked how she felt about the possibility that her friend would not be able to get back into the United States, she replied, "We'll go and visit him somewhere else. Why would you want to come back?"
Robert Deasy, the attorney who is handling the immigration side of el Zaatari's case, stated that the "voluntary departure" decision is arrived at by taking into account the facts surrounding the case and issues such as the defendant's contrition, his intent to depart the U.S., and the cost to the government of housing and flying. He said that voluntary departure is quite common when charges do not involve aggravated felonies (such as crimes of violence or drug trafficking) or moral turpitude (fraud or sexual assault), both of which would cause deportation.
"Mr. El Zaatari was not convicted of a crime that would prohibit the grant of voluntary departure," Deasy said, though he noted that the U.S. attorney had the option to do so, as did the sentencing judge. "They exercised discretion favorably to Mr. El Zaatari by granting voluntary departure. Because he was granted voluntary departure, he does not face a statutory bar from returning to the United States."
When asked what the short-term chances were of el Zaatari being allowed back in the U.S., Deasy said, "Between a snowball's chance in hell and hell freezing over. It could be a real long-term thing, quite possibly decades. I don't know how long this stuff is going to stick."
Deasy also said that considering the electronic exchange of information and how countries are working together with immigration, the U.S. felony conviction would affect his access to other countries as well. "This will haunt him for the rest of his life, here and elsewhere," Deasy said. "With heightened attention to security concerns, the likelihood of being denied a visa to a third country is significant."
As for Francis, his outrage is unabated. "The U.S. attorney looks good, but unfortunately Salam can't come back. He won't be able to go to Hollywood and be a movie producer," he said. He hopes that some day el Zaatari will be pardoned. "In the future, the climate will be different, and the public will realize that many like Salam were victims of that climate."