A Syrian-born US citizen has been charged with spying on anti-Assad protesters and handing recordings to Syrian intelligence in a bid to silence the opposition, US officials said Wednesday.
A federal grand jury charged Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, 47, on October 5 with six counts for spying on activists in the United States and Syria opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. He was arrested Tuesday.
The Leesburg, Virginia man was charged with conspiracy and acting as a Syrian government agent in the United States. He was also charged with two counts of providing false statements on a firearms purchase form and two counts of providing false statements to federal law enforcement.
The White House accused the Assad government of a "desperate effort" to monitor protestors in the United States and of grasping for ways to silence those speaking out against its "brutal" crackdown on protests.
"The regime's efforts to monitor and silence protestors here in the United States will do nothing to satisfy men and women in Syria who are yearning for democracy and freedom," said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.
"As long as Assad remains in power, we will continue working in concert with our international allies around the world to increase pressure on him and his regime until he steps down."
The allegations were swiftly and vehemently denied by the Syrian embassy however, which said they were a "campaign of distortion and fabrications."
"Neither Mr. Soueid nor any other citizen of the US is an agent of the Syrian government," the embassy said in a statement.
"Contrary to the statement of the Department of Justice, Mr. Soueid is not an agent of any Syrian institution; he never worked under directions or control of any Syrian official," it said.
The accusations, the embassy added, were "absolutely baseless and totally unacceptable."
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It also denied the Syrian government had paid travel expenses or any kinds of funds to Soueid, and rejected the notion that he had met privately with Assad.
The charges come amid escalating tensions between Damascus and Washington over the Syrian government's months-long bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
In July, top State Department officials summoned Syrian Ambassador Imad Mustapha to discuss reports that embassy staff had filmed "peaceful" US protests against the Syrian regime.
Rights group Amnesty International issued a statement applauding US officials for acting on "the numerous credible allegations of abuse brought forward by Syrian activists" in the United States.
Amnesty's Syria researcher Neil Sammonds said the arrest "sends a message that the Syrian government's crackdown on opposition has its limits."
As part of his conspiracy, Soueid and others intended to "undermine, silence, intimidate and potentially harm persons in the United States and Syria who protested against the government of Syria and President al-Assad, all at the direction and control of the government of Syria and Syrian officials," the indictment said.
Soueid was said to have ordered individuals to make audio and video recordings of protests in both countries and of conversations with activists that he would then pass on to Syrian intelligence agents.
From about April 2 to June 10, Soueid emailed a Syrian intelligence agent about 20 audio and video recordings taped in the United States, according to the indictment.
"We're in his ring now, (very) important details I have for you," Soueid wrote in an April 6 email to a Syrian embassy official that included a link to a website for protesters in the United States.
During a late June-early July trip to Syria paid for by the government, Soueid was said to have met with Assad and spoken with him in private.
But when questioned by FBI agents around August 3, Soueid denied he had ever recorded or collected information on people in the United States and or shared any such data with Syrian government officials.
If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison on the spying charges, 15 years for the firearms charge and 10 years for making false statements to federal investigators.