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A judge on Friday, August 26, ordered two African refugees to remain behind bars for their role in what police describe as a fake bomb found at Phoenix’s airport, saying that even though the incident could have been a big misunderstanding, it also could have been a “dry run” for a terror attack.
U.S. District Magistrate Lawrence Anderson issued the ruling after a lengthy hearing that revealed new details in the case, including a video of one of the refugees going through security at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
Luwiza Daman, 51, Asa Shani, 34, and another man, Shullu Gorado, 25, have pleaded not guilty to a felony charge of causing what appeared to be an explosive device to go through a security checkpoint at the airport Aug. 5.
A different judge ordered Gorado to remain in custody last week.
Daman, Shani and Gorado are from war-torn Eritrea on the Red Sea in the Horn of Africa and spent years in refugee camps before getting asylum in the U.S. Only Gorado speaks English well, while Daman and Shani are relying on a translator to understand the complicated court proceedings in their native language, an African dialect known as Kunama.
Authorities say Daman had the suspicious item in her bag as she went through airport security intending to board a plane to Des Moines, Iowa. Police say Shani taped the items together and gave the package to Gorado, who gave it to Daman to take on the flight to Iowa.
The package turned out to be a container of a paste-like food similar to tahini, with a cellphone taped to it. But authorities say it looked just like an improvised explosive device when it went through an X-ray machine, adding that cellphones can be used to trigger bombs.
Investigators said the item suggested that the group could have been testing airport security.
In his ruling Friday, Anderson said the “fascinating and challenging” case presents the court with two possibilities.
“One, a significant injustice to individuals lawfully present in the United States as refugees because they allegedly misunderstood English,” he said. “Or a knowing and intentional attempt by someone … to attempt a dry run.”
In deciding whether to release the refugees, Anderson said he considered the seriousness of the charge, the weight of the evidence presented, the background of the refugees and the danger they could pose to the community if released.
He said the evidence so far is not clear or convincing and that the refugees’ background and other factors weighed in favor of their release. He added the government has failed to prove a motive to commit an act of terrorism.
But Anderson said that although the charged crime is nonviolent and doesn’t directly involve a bomb, “it indirectly does as a dry run that could kill many, many people on a commercial aircraft, as we have seen in this country on 9/11.”
The refugees’ trial is set for Oct. 4. If convicted, they each face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. TAS