RALEIGH, North Carolina — A shackled man who shouted incoherently for several minutes before being carried from the courtroom by federal marshals Tuesday might be forcibly medicated so he can go on trial for trying to join al-Qaida-linked fighters in Syria, depending on how a federal judge rules.
Pakistan-born Basit Sheikh — barefoot and wearing thin white shorts, a torn T-shirt and tousled, shoulder-length hair — was hustled out of court in Raleigh by five burly officers after shouting for several minutes alongside his defense lawyer.
"It's pretty clear evidence he's suffering from a pretty profound mental disorder," U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle said before hearing testimony that could result in the Cary, North Carolina, resident being pinned down in his cell by prison guards and injected with anti-psychotic drugs.
The hearing was required by a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision that restricts involuntary medication to serious criminal cases in which prosecutors show important governmental interests at stake, drugs won't have nasty side effects and other criteria are met.
There were only about 77 such cases in federal courts nationwide in the nine years after the Supreme Court ruling through mid-2012, according to a 2013 study by Georgetown University law professor Susan McMahon. Federal district courts approved those motions 63 percent of the time, she said, though at least four cases in the appeals court region that includes North Carolina were later overturned.
"You have to give the specific reason why the drug is going to work for this particular defendant," McMahon said.
Federal prosecutors say the important government interests in this case include the deterrent effect on other would-be American radicals if Sheikh is convicted and sentenced to a maximum of nearly 22 years in prison, federal prosecutor Jason Kellhofer told Boyle.
Sheikh is charged with providing material support to a terrorist group for attempting to join the Syrian militant group Jabhat al-Nusra. He was arrested almost two years ago before boarding an airliner in Raleigh for a trip to Lebanon. He had written online messages expressing a desire to fight with the group, which is battling against Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops, the FBI said.
Sheikh was an early target in an FBI effort to find and arrest Americans before they could join terrorist groups fighting in Syria. The fear is they could return battle-hardened and full of anti-American zeal.
More than 250 people have tried to travel from the United States to battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, according to a report issued Tuesday by the House Homeland Security Committee. Authorities have arrested only 28 — including Sheikh — before they left for the Middle East, the report said. More than 25,000 foreign fighters are estimated to have joined the region's insurgent groups from 100 countries.
Two clinical psychologists and a psychiatrist at the federal prison mental hospital in nearby Butner testified Sheikh has schizophrenia, a condition that includes disordered thinking and speech, delusions and self-isolation. He began showing symptoms about a year before his arrest, the experts said, with relatives reporting Sheikh suspected he was targeted by chemicals infused in the home's tap water.
Defense attorney Joseph Gilbert argued he believed Sheikh did not want to be medicated and the lawyer highlighted serious side-effects related to the drugs a prison doctor proposed using.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio.