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Bin Laden associate's lawyer admits U.S. tax charges, stays on case

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A convicted associate of Osama bin Laden refused to jettison his lawyer on Thursday just minutes after the lawyer pleaded guilty in federal court to tax avoidance crimes.

Lawyer Stanley Cohen admitted to a judge in Manhattan that he did not file income tax returns in 2006 and 2007. He had already pleaded guilty in Syracuse, New York to impeding the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, and is expected to receive a sentence of 18 months in prison in October for his offences.

Cohen could also lose his law license, but that did not deter his client, Kuwaiti-born Muslim preacher Suleiman Abu Ghaith, from keeping him as his attorney as he prepares for sentencing on terrorism-related charges.

Abu Ghaith, who is a son-in-law of al Qaeda founder bin Laden, faces life in prison. A federal jury convicted him in March of conspiring to kill Americans and providing material support to al Qaeda after the September 11, 2001 hijacked plane attacks on the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people. Bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces three years ago in a hideout in Pakistan.

Less than 45 minutes after pleading guilty before U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer, Cohen was sitting with Abu Ghaith in the courtroom of another judge, Lewis Kaplan, who repeatedly questioned whether Abu Ghaith understood that Cohen's situation could create a potential conflict of interest.

The lawyer, for example, could take steps to try to ensure he receives a favorable sentence, Kaplan said.

"Mr. Cohen, while acting as your lawyer, might act in a way that might not be in your interest to further his own personal prospects," Kaplan said. "I can't possibly predict to you all of the ways it's possible."

Abu Ghaith said through an Arabic interpreter that he would like Cohen and his two other lawyers, Zoe Dolan and Geoffrey Stewart, to continue to represent him until his sentencing, which could take place as soon as July.

Kaplan said it was his "strong recommendation" that Abu Ghaith consult with a court-appointed independent lawyer before making his decision, an offer Abu Ghaith turned down.

In January, after Cohen was indicted, Kaplan pressed Abu Ghaith on the same issue. As he did then, Abu Ghaith agreed on Thursday to waive any claim in the future that he did not receive effective legal counsel as a result of Cohen's criminal charges.

After the hearing, Cohen said his representation of Abu Ghaith would pose no conflict.

Cohen has the right to withdraw his guilty pleas if a judge in Syracuse decides to impose a sentence longer than 18 months. Similarly, the government can cancel the deal if the judge sentences Cohen to less than 18 months.

Cohen previously represented a high-ranking official from the Palestinian group Hamas and Mohamed Alessa, a Jordanian citizen in New Jersey convicted of plotting to join an armed Islamic group in Somalia.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Grant McCool)

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