As a human-trafficking case moves to Nashville, the community showed support for the families involved.
About 80 people, including Somali community leaders and local politicians, met at the Safari Restaurant in Minneapolis to discuss recent allegations of gang activity and sex trafficking in the community. “This is not who we are. We are decent people,’’ said Abdil Ahmed, co-owner of the restaurant.
Hours after five defendants appeared in court Friday in a case of alleged human trafficking, local Somali leaders met to denounce criminal behavior while showing support for the families of the accused and the alleged victims.
The need for unity in the Somali community was a key message of speakers at a meeting Friday night that drew more than 80 people to a midtown Minneapolis restaurant. Even so, disagreement was evident about the nature and extent of Somali gang activity.
"We are standing together and want our kids to get a fair trial," said Hodan Hassan, a meeting organizer who said she was not related to any of the accused or the alleged victims.
Several speakers urged the public to withhold judgment of the accused while the legal process unfolds. The defendants may not be guilty, and the media have wrongly portrayed them as representatives of the whole Somali community, some argued.
"This is not who we are. We are decent people,'' said Abdul Ahmed, co-owner of the Safari Restaurant, where the meeting was held.
Friday's meeting came four days after federal agents and local police rounded up more than a dozen suspects in the alleged ring.
In an indictment made public Monday, the government alleges that members of three local Somali gangs -- the Somali Outlaws, the Somali Mafia and the Lady Outlaws -- carried out a 10-year conspiracy that includes the sex trafficking of minors, burglary, credit card fraud, intimidation and perjury.
Twenty-nine people have been indicted by a federal grand jury, most of them accused of selling four underage girls -- one as young as 12 -- as prostitutes.
Some at Friday's meeting, including Hassan, said they don't believe the accused are gang members. Asked whether she believes Somali gangs are active in Minneapolis, she said, "I have never seen any at all."
Others disagreed. "The problem is there, no question about it,'' said Mahamed Cali, executive director of the Somali American Community. Too many Somali teens have already died in shootings, he said. "As a community, we have to take responsibility to educate the parents, to educate the youth."
Speakers in the restaurant's banquet room, who addressed the audience mostly in Somali, ranged from religious leaders and an attorney to newly elected Minneapolis school board member Hussein Samatar.
A local imam and others said they have reached out to families of both the suspects and the alleged victims, offering spiritual guidance and connecting them with lawyers.
All but one of 13 defendants to appear in court in Minneapolis will be transferred to jails in Nashville while awaiting arraignment in federal court. Those hearings are expected to occur in the next week or two.
During the court hearings in Minneapolis this week, a couple of points were made clear: At least some of the suspects say they did not know their victims were underage. Others dispute the government's charges that they are gang members.
"This girl told me she was 19," Yassin Yusuf, 20, said to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents after he was arrested. "I believed she was 19. She's ruined my life."
According to the federal indictment, Yusuf in May 2007 drove a victim who was 12 or 13 at the time to Rochester "for the purpose of charging persons money to engage in sex" with her. In April 2009, Yusuf is alleged to have taken the victim to another location where she was told to perform a sex act on a man in exchange for marijuana, and on another man for marijuana and liquor.
Later, he and others allegedly drove her to Nashville. They were later stopped by Nashville police and Yusuf was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The victim was in the car.
Federal defender Andrea George argued in court Friday for Yusuf's release pending trial, saying "he has an absolute defense"-- that he did not know the victim was underage.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats told U.S. Magistrate Judge Franklin Noel: "The merits of this case will be decided later in Tennessee, not here today." With that, Noel ordered Yusuf remanded to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service.
The only suspect allowed to report to Nashville on her own is Bibi Said, who is pregnant. Her first hearing is Nov. 30.
On Friday, one of the three suspects still being sought in the case was arrested and booked into the Ramsey County jail, said St. Paul Police Cmdr. Tina McNamara. Ahmed Aweys Sheik, whose last name she said also has been spelled Sheikh, was arrested at 6:17 p.m. by the Gerald Vick Human Trafficking Task Force.
James Walsh • 612-673-7428 Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016 Staff writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.