ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – Attorneys for five people facing federal terrorism-related charges following their arrests last summer in a New Mexico compound raid said Thursday their clients are being prosecuted because they are Muslims.
“This case is about freedom of religion, freedom of association and the right to bear arms,” said Billy Blackburn, an attorney for Subhanah Wahhaj, one of those charged. He and other defense attorneys said their clients are innocent of the charges.
The five pleaded not guilty in federal court Thursday to new charges that include conspiring to support planned attacks on U.S. law enforcement officers, military members and government employees.
They have been in federal custody since August on firearms charges, which accuse them of conspiring to provide weapons and ammunition to Jany Leveille, one of the five and a leader of the group who is from Haiti and had been living in the country illegally.
The group travelled in late 2017 from Georgia to New Mexico, where they built their compound in Amalia, which is just south of the Colorado border. The area is dotted with some of the region’s signature “earthship” self-built homes.
A raid and a subsequent search of the compound in August led to the discovery of 11 malnourished children, guns, ammunition, a firing range, and the remains of a 3-year-old boy who was the son of one of the suspects and had suffered from medical disabilities that authorities said went untreated.
They also said they found a journal kept by Leveille, who wrote about being able to interpret messages from God.
Blackburn told reporters the defense believed the charges in a superseding indictment filed last week stemmed from allegations that prosecutors previously presented in court.
In a detention hearing in September, authorities said Leveille declared herself a prophet who believed the deceased boy would be resurrected as Jesus and give instructions on how to get rid of corrupt institutions.
She and the boy’s father had conducted prayer rituals over the child before he died, while denying him medication because Leveille believed it suppressed Muslim belief, authorities said. The two had lived at the compound as a couple.
The boy’s father also was charged with helping train others, including children, for potential attacks on schools, law enforcement agencies and other institutions that never occurred, authorities said.
A search for the boy led sheriff’s officials to the compound following reports from the boy’s mother that he was missing.
The suspects’ children found living at the compound initially had been placed in the custody of the state Children, Youth and Families Department. However, some now are living with relatives, said defense attorney Amy Sirignano.
The group’s makeshift settlement had consisted of a littered camping trailer wedged into the desert that had been shielded by stacked tires. Authorities said the boy’s decomposed body was found in an underground tunnel.
The results of an autopsy are still pending.
Others charged include two sisters and a brother-in-law of Wahhaj.
All, except Wahhaj, are charged in the 3-year-old’s kidnapping. Federal statutes generally do not allow for parents to be charged in their own children’s abductions, except in international cases.
Because authorities say the 2017 abduction ultimately resulted in the boy’s death, the kidnapping counts carry a potential maximum sentence of life in prison or the death penalty.
The prosecutors have not indicated they will pursue the death penalty. Still, defense attorney expressed concern over the seriousness of the new charges’ potential penalties.
“As you can imagine this is really difficult for them,” said defense attorney Carey Corlew Bhalla.
The minimum sentence for kidnapping resulting in death in the federal system is 20 years.
The charge of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.