- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2006

The husband of a woman who is accused of smuggling people into the country from the Middle East yesterday changed his mind about pleading guilty to conspiracy and smuggling charges.

An attorney for Thaer Asaifi, husband of Neeran H. “Nancy” Zaia, filed papers in federal court in the District seeking to withdraw his client’s guilty plea last year in the case.

Federal authorities have accused Mrs. Zaia of being the ringleader of a large human-smuggling operation.

Mr. Asaifi changed his mind after reviewing a pre-sentencing report earlier this year that outlined the government’s evidence, according to his attorney.

“He is moving to withdraw his plea because of his mistake in accepting the plea, and in failing to fully understand the consequences of the plea, primarily because of his cultural background and his lack of familiarity with the criminal-justice system,” defense lawyer Howard B. Katzoff wrote in a memo filed yesterday.

Mr. Asaifi and his wife are accused in what authorities say was a massive operation to smuggle hundreds of illegal aliens from the Middle East, including Iraq, into the United States.

According to the indictment in 2004, Mrs. Zaia ran the smuggling ring through a Detroit-area business she ran called Universal Investment & Law Services. She advertised her services in local newspapers.

The case was unsealed last year.

Federal authorities say the operation smuggled aliens through South America before bringing them into the country illegally.

Mr. Asaifi married Mrs. Zaia months after meeting her in Jordan in 2000. Mr. Asaifi’s attorney said his client helped Mrs. Zaia in her business in 2001.

He said that Mr. Asaifi helped Iraqis flee their country but did not know they were ultimately bound for the United States.

In a plea deal, Mr. Asaifi pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy and human-smuggling charges.

At a minimum, he would face about six years in prison, according to court papers.

Court records show that an informant and/or government agent also discussed with Mr. Asaifi several persons in Jordan who were waiting to go to the U.S.

Mr. Asaifi’s reversal complicates matters in the case, especially if he were to be called to testify as a government witness in his wife’s trial.

“The government would understandably be surprised and upset if Mr. Asaifi is brought to court to be a government rebuttal witness a year from now and he were to make these representations for the first time,” Mr. Katzoff wrote.

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