Through his attorney and on his own, Basit Sheikh told a federal judge the following things Thursday: He wants to represent himself on charges he tried to join an al-Qaida-linked militant group. He wants his family to hire another attorney. And he will leave the country voluntarily if the government drops the charges.
Also, he said he's being abused in prison, "physically and morally."
At the end of the hearing in Raleigh that lasted less than a half-hour, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle granted the North Carolina man's request for a 30-day continuance. When Sheikh returns to court, he will either have a new attorney or Boyle will appoint his current lawyer as stand-by counsel as Sheikh represents himself, the judge said.
"I'm not going to let him represent himself, ever, without a minimum of stand-by counsel," Boyle said.
Sheikh is charged with providing material support to a terrorist group for attempting to join Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. government has declared a terrorist organization. The FBI says Sheikh wrote messages online expressing a desire to fight with the group, one of the primary rebel forces fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops.
In court, Sheikh spoke with a heavy accent that Boyle didn't always understand and required the defense attorney, Joseph Gilbert, to explain.
Sheikh told his attorney at the start of the day that he wants to argue the case himself, said Gilbert, a public defender. His parents, however, later said they wanted to hire an attorney, he said. "He does not want me to represent him," Gilbert told the judge, explaining Sheikh's comments in court. "He wants to represent himself."
Sheikh told the judge he's being held in a prison in Farmville, Va., "under really stressful conditions." Although he was hard to understand, Sheikh seemed to say he had been subjected to brain scanning, hit in the face and pushed in the hall.
Boyle inquired as to Sheikh's competence. "I am concerned about his competence," Gilbert said.
In response to questions from Boyle, Gilbert said Sheikh is not on medication now and he doesn't believe he ever has been. Gilbert said he's unaware that Sheikh has received any mental health counseling.
Prosecutor Jason Kellhoffer told Boyle that he saw no need for a psychiatric exam at this time. Boyle did not order one.
During a hearing in November, his mother testified that Sheikh lived with his parents, likely suffered from anxiety and depression, needed psychiatric help, and spent all of his time on the Internet.
Sheikh told an FBI informant he was going to join Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, where a civil war has killed more than 100,000 people, an FBI agent said in a sworn affidavit.
In August, Sheikh began an online relationship with an undercover FBI employee on a Facebook page promoting Islamic extremism, the affidavit said. Sheikh told the covert informant he had traveled to Turkey last year hoping to join the fight in Syria, but became dispirited by his experience with people who claimed to be part of the Free Syrian Army.
If convicted, Sheikh could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison and fined $250,000.
Sheikh grew up in the Seychelles, a 155-island country in the Indian Ocean, and moved to the U.S. from Pakistan in 2005, he told Boyle. He is a permanent, lawful resident but not a U.S. citizen, Gilbert said.
Sheikh said he was willing to deported if the charges are dropped, although it wasn't clear if he wanted to return to Pakistan or the Seychelles.
"I was told the charges have been dropped, and I'll be allowed to go," Sheikh said.
He later asked Boyle to return him to Wake County so his parents can visit him more often. Boyle declined.
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