Dressed in a black suit and tie and surrounded by two dozen family supporters, a close friend of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev pleaded not guilty Friday to charges that he lied to investigators during a terrorism probe.
The arraignment of Robel Phillipos, a 19-year-old former University of Massachusetts Dartmouth student from Cambridge, came after he was indicted about two weeks ago when negotiations to resolve his case collapsed. Phillipos is free on bail.
Two other UMass Dartmouth students, both from Kazakhstan, have also been charged with impeding the investigation, accused of taking potentially incriminating objects they found in Tsarnaev’s room while police were pursuing him.
The arraignment marked the first time the three men were named together in an indictment and formally charged. Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov had been indicted as a pair last month and already pleaded not guilty, but had to repeat the process Friday when Phillipos’s case was added. The Kazakh men repeated their pleas of not guilty.
Assistant US Attorney John A. Capin said he expects to call up to 20 witnesses in a trial, which could last two weeks. The case was continued to Oct. 29.
The charges against Phillipos relate to two occasions in April, five days apart, when federal agents allege that he lied about what he was doing in the hours after agents broadcast photos of the alleged suspects in the Marathon bombings.
The indictment handed up by the grand jury said Phillipos told numerous lies before acknowledging that he and the Kazakh students had entered Tsarnaev’s dorm room on the evening of April 18 and removed several items, including Tsarnaev’s laptop and a backpack containing fireworks and Vaseline, which they believed had something to do with making bombs.
Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov face the more serious charges of obstruction of justice because they are accused of disposing items relevant to the investigation. Federal authorities say they tossed the backpack into a dumpster behind their off-campus apartment in New Bedford, and did not stop trash haulers from taking it away.
Defense attorneys have portrayed the students’ actions as the behavior of scared young men not thinking clearly while seeing their close friend in desperate trouble.
The Kazakh students face a maximum of 20 years for the most serious count involving obstructing justice. Phillipos faces a maximum of eight years for each count of making false statements to federal agents.
Phillipos, whose family is originally from Ethiopia, declined to answer questions from the media, while being surrounded by relatives and family friends who hugged him after the proceedings.
“In the end, it will be clear that this prosecution should never have been brought in the first place,” said Derege Demissie and Susan Church, two Cambridge attorneys who represent Phillipos, in a prepared statement.
The fathers of both of the defendants from Kazakhstan have been present in court for each of the two arraignments for their sons.
Tazhayakov’s father, Amir Ismagulov, said the family has been in the country since his son was arrested and is convinced of his innocence.
“He wants to support him, to bring him support,” a translator said, interpreting for the father.
Outside the courtroom, Nicholas Wooldridge, an attorney for Tazhayakov, said the case is weak and based on interviews conducted by FBI officials that were never recorded.
“This is a case where you have a government that has rushed into things,” he said. “This is basically what the agents said my clients said.”