- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Federal prosecutors sought Wednesday to have a North Carolina man forcibly medicated at a psychiatric hospital so he can face a charge that he sought to join al-Qaida-linked fighters in Syria.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle said during a brief court hearing that Pakistan-born Cary resident Basit Sheikh remains incompetent to help his defense despite months of treatment at a federal mental hospital near Raleigh. Sheikh, who was 29 when he was arrested in 2013, is charged with providing material support to a terrorist group.

The government wants Boyle’s approval to order Sheikh’s involuntary treatment for schizophrenia, federal prosecutor Jason Kellhofer said in a court filing. Psychologists at the federal medical center in Butner, about 30 miles north of Raleigh, reported that Sheikh exhibited symptoms as early as 2012.

Prosecutors have to convince Boyle that important government interests are at stake and that involuntary medication will significantly further those interests. Kellhofer said trying someone for a serious crime represents the government’s effort to protect American society.

The move is uncommon but not extraordinary, said George J. Annas, a lawyer and chairman of the Health Law, Bioethics & Human Rights Department at Boston University’s School of Public Health.

“That’s what the judge is going to have to decide - whether the government is making a credible case here that this guy really needs to be tried in a criminal case rather than just being kept in a mental institution for a period of time. They’re not going to keep him locked up his whole life,” Annas said. “There’s no evidence that terrorists are interested in severely mentally impaired people. They could just as well blow up the whole camp.”

Jared Loughner, who killed six people and wounded 13 including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona in 2011, was forcibly medicated for schizophrenia at a federal prison medical facility so he could be competent to understand the charges against him. He pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence.

Sheikh was an early target in an FBI effort to arrest Americans before they could join terrorist groups fighting in the Syrian conflict.

A Department of Homeland Security official said at a congressional hearing Wednesday that more than 180 U.S. residents have tried to travel to Syria to fight, or have gone and come back. FBI Director James Comey said in September only about a dozen were then on the battlefield. A spokesman for the National Counterterrorism Center did not respond to phone and email messages seeking updated information.

Sheikh is charged with attempting to join the Syrian militant group Jabhat al-Nusra. He was arrested before boarding an airliner in Raleigh for a trip to Lebanon, the FBI said. He had written messages online expressing a desire to fight with the group, which is battling against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops.

Sheikh’s mother testified last year that he lived with his parents, likely suffered from anxiety and depression, needed psychiatric help, and spent all of his time on the Internet. He has no criminal record.

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 last year. He is a permanent, lawful U.S. resident but not a citizen, his attorney has said.

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AP writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report

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Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio.

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