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Smuggler said to test terror-case testimony

DETROIT -- A cigarette smuggler is challenging testimony by a key prosecution witness in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, convictions of three Moroccan immigrants, a published report said.

According to yesterday's Detroit Free Press, smuggler Thamir Zaia said it was he, not defendant Karim Koubriti, who went shopping for cigarettes with a mentally ill man whose notebook had what the government says were sketches of possible terrorist targets.

The notebook, owned by a now-dead, mentally ill Yemeni immigrant named Ali Mohammed Ali Ahmed, was a major part of the prosecution's case. A prosecution witness, Carolyn Sadowski, was the only witness to link him with the defendants. Defense lawyers say their clients did not know Ahmed.

US District Judge Gerald Rosen is considering requests for a new trial by Koubriti and the other two immigrants, convicted in June 2003 in the first trial to result from the federal probe of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

At trial, Sadowski, a Sam's Club store manager, identified Koubriti as the man who accompanied Ahmed to buy more than $3,000 worth of cigarettes. She said Koubriti showed her a driver's license belonging to Zaia.

The Free Press, citing unidentified people familiar with the case, said Zaia did not tell the FBI about the alleged misidentification until March 2.

Koubriti, 25, was convicted with Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, 38, of conspiring to provide material support to terrorism. Ahmed Hannan, 35, was convicted of document fraud, and a fourth man was acquitted.

The Bush administration hailed the convictions as a victory in the war on terror.

Defense lawyers requested a new trial, saying prosecutors withheld witnesses and evidence.

Neither Assistant US Attorney Eric Straus, who is handling the case, nor a lawyer for Zaia immediately responded to messages left yesterday seeking comment.

In October 2002, Zaia was sentenced to two years' probation for his role in a scheme to smuggle cigarettes into Michigan.

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