The Justice Department has charged a Syrian-born U.S. citizen with spying on Americans demonstrating against Syria’s Assad regime and passing that information on to Syria intelligence officers to intimidate the protesters.
Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, 47, of Leesburg, Va., conspired to collect video and audio recordings of the protesters as well as their email addresses and phone numbers, according to an indictment unsealed Wednesday.
Mr. Soueid acted as an agent of Syria’s intelligence agencies, known as the Mukhabarat, and provided information to an individual who worked at the Syrian Embassy in Washington, according to the indictment.
The Syrian Embassy said the indictment is based on “sheer lies and fabrications.”
The Syrian government’s crackdown on protesters demanding the ouster of President Bashar Assad has left nearly 3,000 people dead, according to the United Nations.
Earlier this month, an Amnesty International report said Syrian Embassy officials, working in collaboration with their government, spied on and intimidated activists in the U.S., Europe and Canada.
Hamdi Rifai, director of Arab Americans for Democracy in Syria, received a warning from Syria’s Ministry of Information soon after he took part in an anti-Assad protest in Washington in March at which he was photographed.
“The degree of monitoring of Syrians is unlike any other country in the world,” he said.
The protesters’ families have not been spared. Syrian-American pianist Malek Jandali said his elderly parents were beaten by intelligence agents in the city of Homs in western Syria after he took part in a protest outside the White House in July.
“While my mom was being beaten, the security personnel told her, ‘This is to teach you a lesson on how to raise your kid. That’s what you get when someone demonstrates against us,’” Mr. Jandali said.
Mr. Soueid was arrested Tuesday, and a federal magistrate on Wednesday ordered him to be held pending a detention hearing Friday. He faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted.
He originally was charged by a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia on Oct. 6 on six counts: conspiracy to act and acting as an agent of the Syrian government in the U.S. without notifying the attorney general as required by law, two counts of providing false statements on a firearms-purchase form, and two counts of providing false statements to federal law enforcement.
The Syrian Embassy said in a statement provided to The Washington Times that Mr. Soueid is not a Syrian government agent, did not take orders from Syrian officials, and never provided any embassy employee with information about protesters.
“The accusation that a U.S. citizen is working with the Syrian government to intimidate U.S. citizens is absolutely baseless and totally unacceptable,” it added.
According to the indictment, Mr. Soueid traveled to Syria in late June at the Syrian government’s expense. On that visit, he met privately with Mr. Assad and with intelligence officials.
The Syrian Embassy said the government did not pay for Mr. Soueid’s trip and that Mr. Assad did not meet with him in private.
On his return to Washington in early July, Mr. Soueid was questioned at Washington Dulles International Airport.
After the incident, he contacted his “boss,” a Mukhabarat employee who has not been identified, to assure him the encounter would not “stop the project,” according to the indictment.
FBI agents interviewed Mr. Soueid on Aug. 3, and the indictment accuses him of lying during the interview. It also says Mr. Soueid gave a false address when he purchased a Beretta pistol in July.
Mr. Soueid used to work at an auto dealership, according to an acquaintance who did not want to be identified.