Minutes after the start of a federal hearing Friday on terrorism-related charges, Mahamud Said Omar's lawyer said he noticed his client breathing heavily. "I could feel him shake," said Matthew Forsgren.
Then, Omar fell straight backward, his head striking the floor as he crashed in a heap.
Omar's collapse in Minneapolis shook the more than two dozen friends, family and community members who had come to his detention hearing, and laid bare their continuing questions about the government's case against him.
Before his extradition to the United States, Omar had spent nearly two years in a Dutch jail cell. His family says his mental and physical health steadily deteriorated during that time.
"They are pushing this case too far," said Mohamed Osman, Omar's brother. "We know that he is innocent."
Omar has been charged with providing material support to a known terrorist group and conspiracy to kill people outside the country. The charges stem from a years-long FBI investigation into the travels of 20 or more young Somali-American men from Minnesota to Somalia. Authorities believe they were recruited to fight for Al-Shabab, a rebel group in Somalia designated by U.S. officials as a terrorist organization with ties to Al-Qaida.
Court documents say that Omar played a role as a facilitator or recruiter, who helped move people to fight and money to buy assault rifles.
Omar's family, however, say he lacks the education and intelligence to commit such crimes. At most, they say, he was a follower -- not a leader, as investigators allege.
Omar Jamal, a local Somali activist who works for the Permanent Mission of the Somali Republic to the United Nations in New York, said: "I know him. I know that he's not as big a fish as the government believes."
Jamal spent several minutes after the hearing, speaking in Somali to Omar's family and friends outside Chief Judge Michael Davis' courtroom.
Afterward, he said he was encouraging people not to talk about the case but to let the lawyers do their jobs.
"The lawyers are going to win this case or lose it; it's their baby," he said. "I believe in my heart he's innocent. But I will let the court decide that."
Dutch approved extradition
Omar fought extradition to the United States after he was arrested by Dutch police at the request of U.S. authorities in November 2009. The former Minneapolis resident was staying at an asylum-seekers' center in the Netherlands at the time he was taken into custody.
His Dutch attorney argued that during the time Omar is accused of assisting Al-Shabab, the group was fighting a "legitimate struggle" against Ethiopian forces in Somalia. Omar never intended to help terrorists, the lawyer said.
Nevertheless, the Dutch Supreme Court earlier this year rejected his appeal. He was returned to Minnesota and made an initial court appearance two weeks ago.
His family says he has spent much of the past two years in solitary confinement. The question of whether his confinement will continue while he awaits trial in Minnesota was delayed by his collapse.
Omar's brother said the government is mistaken -- and Omar is paying the price.
"His health is deteriorating. We told them this before, again and again and again, that he has mental issues," Mohamed Osman said. "They're not listening."
James Walsh • 612-673-7428