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I-Drive Magnate in Court Today; Defense Attorneys Said Prosecutors must Offer Evidence to Keep Jesee Maali in Jail

Federal prosecutors must do more than drop hints about ties to Middle Eastern violence if they are to convince a judge today that a wealthy Arab-American businessman arrested in Orlando last week should be kept in jail without bond.

In a detention hearing in federal court, the U.S. Attorney's Office is expected to outline why it wants to keep Jesse Issa Maali locked up.

The International Drive tourist-shop magnate was arrested Thursday during a series of raids of his Isleworth mansion and businesses in Orange and Osceola counties. He is charged with 55 counts of money-laundering and immigration violations.

So far, all prosecutors have said is that Maali has "financial ties to Middle Eastern organizations who advocate violence."

today's hearing, local defense attorneys say that Maali, 57, and four co-defendants likely will be granted bail and sleep at home soon.

" Actually, quite frequently, they make allegations they can't prove," Fletcher Peacock, the federal public defender for the Middle District of Florida, said of prosecutors.

" The government often asks for pretrial detention, and the magistrate judges reject that and find that there are conditions of bond that can be made," he said.

The hearing is expected to draw a crowd of Arab-Americans from across Central Florida who look to Maali as a leader in their community.

" We will probably have about four or five hundred people there," said Sami D. Qubty, president of the Arab American Community Center in Altamonte Springs. "Jesse Maali is very well respected. He is loved by everybody in the community. He is brother to everybody, so they will be there to support him."

Detention hearings require prosecutors to present evidence showing why someone should be kept in custody.

Defense lawyers get their first chance to question the government's case and explain why their clients should be released.

Spectators will hear uncommon maneuvering when Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Hawkins Collazo makes a case for holding Maali without bail on nothing more than charges of money-laundering and immigration violations.

" It's very unusual in an economic crime to ask for detention based on dangerousness," Peacock said.

To hold someone without bail, federal law generally requires someone to be facing a life sentence or charged with crimes of violence, serious drug offenses or have a history of previous arrests. Maali has none of those.

Collazo is likely to argue that Maali will flee if granted bail or will intimidate witnesses, Peacock predicted.

Maali has extensive ties to Central Florida, including about 100 relatives and businesses with 800 employees.

U.S. Magistrate David A. Baker will hear the arguments. Routinely voted one of Central Florida's top judges during the past decade, Baker is widely considered the most liberal of the court's three magistrates at granting bail.

Maali and his business partner, Mohammed Saleem Khanani, 51, and three of their employees -- Khan Aslam, 56; Saeedullah Awan, 43; and Mahmood Jamal, 48, all of Orange County -- face the same set of 55 charges related to illegally hiring foreign nationals.

Meanwhile on Sunday, an accountant who is an officer for several Maali and Khanani companies was arrested by the FBI on related charges of conspiring to harbor illegal aliens.

David R. Portlock, 51, of Windermere was held without bail at the Seminole County Jail. He is to appear today before a federal magistrate. Portlock's office at 7345 Sand Lake Road was searched by federal agents Thursday, but details on his involvement in the case were not available Sunday.

Orlando attorney Mark NeJame, who represents Maali, described his client as an upstanding businessman who cannot be held accountable if some of his workers had immigration problems.

NeJame says local prosecutors have a history of accusing Arab- Americans of terrorism only to have their cases amount to nothing.

Last summer's arrest of a Melbourne car dealer, Salman Salman, 33, on weapons charges was one case cited by NeJame.

Salman was linked in court to a 1997 terrorist attack at the Empire State Building, but it turned out the FBI previously investigated and cleared him of wrongdoing.

Rules prohibit prosecutors from commenting. But Carolyn Adams, head of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Orlando, has said that allegations of ethnic motivation behind Maali's prosecution are groundless.

Today's hearing will be packed, and those who cannot get in are likely to gather outside the federal courthouse at 80 N. Hughey Ave.

Fewer than 60 seats will be available.

Last week, Maali's initial court appearance was moved to the courthouse's largest courtroom when about 80 supporters arrived within hours of his arrest. But a trial is being held there today, so the hearing likely will return to Baker's fifth-floor courtroom.

Fire-safety regulations prohibit standing in courtrooms or in the hallway outside, so overflow spectators will have to wait outside the building, said Robin Hill, head of the U.S. Marshals Service in Orlando

Copyright © 2002, Orlando Sentinel

Source: Orlando Sentinel

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