Fayette County

Will Kentucky Islamic leader charged in murder-for-hire plot have to stay in jail?

A 2009 file photo of Mahmoud Shalash, the imam of the Lexington Islamic Center.
A 2009 file photo of Mahmoud Shalash, the imam of the Lexington Islamic Center. Lexington

A Lexington Islamic leader charged in a murder-for-hire plot should have to stay in jail until his trial to ensure the safety of a victim and guard against the potential he would flee to escape the charge, a federal prosecutor argued Tuesday.

But the attorney representing Mahmoud Shaker Shalash said he should be released, arguing that the case is weak and that Shalash won’t flee and is not a danger to anyone.

Shalash has no history of violence, and there is nothing in his background to indicate he would be involved in trying to hire a killer, said his attorney, Brandon Wayne Marshall.

“The allegations are wholly out of character for Mr. Shalash,” Marshall told U.S. Magistrate Judge Matthew A. Stinnett.

Stinnett held a hearing in federal court in Lexington on the government’s request to keep Shalash and two other men in jail until their trial. Stinnett said he would rule by the end of the week on whether the three men will be released pending trial.

Shalash, 70, the imam of the Islamic Center of Lexington, is charged with John Sadiqullah, 31, and Abdul Hadi, 34, with taking part in a conspiracy in recent weeks to hire a hit man to kill someone.

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Shalash allegedly told someone posing as an underworld fixer that a person owed him $80,000 and said “do whatever you have to do to get my money back,” according to a sworn statement from William J. Jackson, a University of Kentucky police officer who is on a terrorism task force with the FBI.

The person talking with Shalash was secretly working with federal authorities.

Mahmoud Shaker Shalash

In another meeting in late April, Sadiqullah told the informant that someone had cheated him in a business deal involving a taxi company.

“I want him dead,” Sadiqullah allegedly said, adding that he and some associates would pay $10,000 each for the contract murder.

That alleged threat involved a separate victim than the person Shalash said owed him $80,000, according to the court record.

Shalash was present at that meeting and gave the informant a photo of the second potential victim, Jackson said.

However, Marshall raised the idea that the informant entrapped Shalash.

The informant was the first one to talk about harming the person Shalash said owed him money, Marshall said.

Shalash said he didn’t want anyone hurt over money and rebuffed the informant’s suggestions about violence several times, but the undercover operative kept pushing him, Marshall said.

“He’s the one that opened the door to this,” Marshall said of the undercover cooperator.

Jackson said in his affidavit that Shalash agreed when the informant raised the idea of Shalash issuing a fatwa — an Islamic legal pronouncement from an expert in religious law — authorizing killing the second victim.

But Marshall said that didn’t make any sense because Shalash doesn’t have the authority to issue that kind of decree.

Whitney True Lawson, who represents Sadiqullah, and John W. Oakley II, Hadi’s attorney, argued to have them released from jail until trial as well.

Both men are Afghan and helped the U.S. military in the long-running war in their home country before coming to Kentucky, according to testimony.

John Sadiqullah

Sadiqullah, who drives a taxi, is a legal permanent resident. He came to the U.S. seeking asylum because of the danger of staying Afghanistan after he helped the American forces.

Hadi drives for a ride-sharing service, according to testimony.

Defense attorneys said Sadiqullah and Hadi are not at risk to flee the charges because they have wives and children in Lexington who depend on them. They also don’t have any money to go on the run, their attorneys said.

Lawson said there is a question on the reliability of the informant, who has been paid for his work by federal authorities in the past, while Oakley said Hadi never met with the informant and that there was little to substantiate his involvement in the alleged plot.

“It’s a long shot, in my opinion,” Oakley said of the case.

Abdul Hadi

However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew T. Boone said there was sufficient evidence to require holding all three men without bond until the trial.

Boone pointed to Jackson’s testimony that police found more than $100,000 in cash in Shalash’s house after arresting him last week.

The government seized that, but it could be an indication that Shalash has other cash he could use to flee, and he has extensive experience traveling outside the U.S., Boone said.

And Boone said that while the informant may have been the first to bring up talk of hurting someone, after Shalash was well aware of the potential for violence, he introduced the undercover source to Sadiqullah, who talked of wanting to kill someone.

Shalash also gave the informant photos of the second potential victim and of his wife and daughter, and later sent the informant a message with the victim’s phone number, Boone said.

As for Hadi, Boone said he went to Florida and threatened the second victim, whom he and Sadiqullah believed had cheated them.

Hadi also went with Sadiqullah to confront the man at his business in Lexington after Hadi became aware of the potential to hire someone to hurt or kill the man, Boone said.