By day, Papa Faal was a pillar of the Twin Cities’ Gambian community, a devoted father who was widely considered a man of noble character. At night, he secretly typed away on his home computer, planning a coup against the president of the West African nation he left 23 years ago.
The two sides of Faal’s life were dramatically trotted out in federal court in Minneapolis on Thursday as attorneys argued about whether the man who played an undefined role in last month’s failed and deadly coup should be released from jail.
Magistrate Judge Franklin Noel admitted that it wasn’t an easy question to answer, but he ultimately decided that Faal could be a flight risk and that information he had reviewed made him believe Faal would do everything in his power to finish the mission in Gambia.
Faal, 46, of Brooklyn Park, bowed his head after the judge’s ruling. A supporter, Yero Jallow, was so overcome with sadness that he was removed from the courtroom, weeping and shouting, “When are we going to be free?”
Faal, a U.S. Air Force veteran who fought in Afghanistan, is accused of conspiring to violate the Neutrality Act by making a military expedition against a friendly nation. He is one of two Americans charged in the plot.
His case will go before a grand jury, which must indict him before a trial can proceed. If convicted, he could receive a life sentence.
Jallow, who organized a small protest before Thursday’s hearing, said that Faal is a good man and that a long line of supporters would form to testify in front of the grand jury.
“By all accounts, Papa Faal was a model citizen devoted to his community,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats. “But he was also devoted to achieving regime change in Gambia. It was his white whale.”
A bloody failure
Faal has described the failed Dec. 30 coup as an attempt to restore democracy there. He said he joined the movement because he was disenchanted with the way Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, “was rigging elections.”
Faal is accused of shipping guns to Gambia, hidden among clothing and other goods in four 50-gallon drums. He then went there himself, financed by the coup’s interim leader, a businessman whose code name was “Dave.”
But the expected revolt ended with several of the rebels shot to death by Gambian soldiers as they attacked the government State House. There have been at least four military attempts to oust Jammeh since he seized power in a 1994 coup.
Before Thursday’s hearing, about a dozen protesters, some from outside the Twin Cities, gathered in front of the courthouse. Several held signs with slogans that included “Free all prisoners of conscience” and “Jammeh is a dictator.” The protesters, along with Faal’s wife, two brothers and brother-in-law, filled the courtroom gallery.
Faal quietly responded to Noel’s questions.
John Cich, an investigator for the federal public defender’s office, was called to testify by Faal’s attorney. Cich interviewed leaders from the Gambia Association of Minnesota and members of an Islamic cultural center where Faal volunteers. Every Saturday, Faal takes his young daughter to the center and spends five hours working with 80 Gambian children, he said.
One community leader told Cich that Faal was the first person he’d call if he needed something repaired or to raise money.
Faal’s motivation wasn’t greed or power, said Andrew Mohring, his federal public defender. He suggested ways his client could leave jail and still be under supervision, such as house arrest and the monitoring of his computer and cellphone. He stressed Faal’s ties to the community and his character, and said he has stable employment and owns a house.
He didn’t hide coup role
After the failed coup, Faal went to Senegal and turned himself in to the U.S. embassy. He wasn’t under arrest, but volunteered the story that became the basis of the charges, Noel said. The judge questioned whether Faal would have changed his mind had he known that charges would be filed against him, especially with relatives living around the world.
Faal had no legal constraints that would have preventing him from fleeing when he landed in Washington, D.C., a few days later, Mohring said.
The attorney argued that it’s unclear what role Faal played in the coup, because it was planned by a large group. He had no criminal history until the federal charges, and no guns were found at his home.
But Kovats emphasized how Faal smuggled the semi-automatic weapons into Gambia for the coup without the knowledge of his family and the community. And Faal told federal agents before his arrest that he expected to go to jail.
Noel said there were no guarantees that Faal would show up for future court appearances or that Jammeh’s safety might not be threatened if Faal were to be released from jail. The judge also raised concerns that Faal’s military training made him a skilled shooter and that he suffers from post-traumatic stress because of his military service.
Noel added: “But it appears to me the defendant has strong support from family and the community and he is a man of strong character.”