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Muslim cleric pleads guilty to molesting Tampa boy

TAMPA — He came to the United States as a revered religious leader. On Thursday, he was deemed a sexual offender as he pleaded guilty to molesting a 13-year-old boy at a local mosque last year.

With shoulders slumped and cuffed hands crossed in front of him, Yasser Mohamed Shahade, 36, showed little emotion. Hills­borough Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe accepted his guilty plea, putting him on probation for 10 years.

He will be deported immediately to his native Egypt. If he were ever to return legally, he would be subject to strict restrictions aimed at keeping him from children.

Shahade nodded as an interpreter explained the sentence to him.

He's been locked up since May 17, 2009, and is expected to remain at the Falkenburg Road Jail until his deportation.

He entered the United States on a visitor's visa to serve as a full-time imam, or Muslim prayer leader, at a local mosque, Masjid Omar Al Mokhtar, just north of Kennedy Boulevard near downtown Tampa. About two months later, police arrested him after a teen boy who stayed overnight at the mosque with his younger brother said the imam had sexually assaulted him.

Shahade faced 15 years in prison if convicted of sexual battery on a minor. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of lewd and lascivious behavior, expecting to be deported and released in Egypt, according to Charles Traina, an attorney for the Hillsborough County Public Defender's Office, which represented him.

Reached by phone Thursday, the boy's father said he was happy with the outcome, which ensures that another child in the local Muslim community would not suffer the fate of his son.

The St. Petersburg Times is withholding the father's name to protect the victim's identity.

He said his son has been seeing a psychologist regularly since the incident and will continue to do so for a while. The father said his family has forgiven Shahade, adding that his actions have brought shame to the cleric's family — a wife and two daughters, who live in Egypt.

"Had this man been innocent he would never plead to anything," the father said. "I knew he was guilty all along."

Ramzy Kilic, director of the local chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, a civil rights advocacy group, said the Muslim community appears divided on the subject of Shahade's guilt.

"We'll never know all the details," Kilic said. "He may have made that plea deal because he didn't think he would have a fair trial. That doesn't necessarily mean he was guilty."

Still, Kilic said, if Shahade had been found guilty after a trial, it would have been "a huge shame."

During a visit to Tampa the year before the incident, Shahade had impressed many in the mosque's congregation with his knowledge of Islam and his religious zeal.

Shahade, they learned, had memorized the Koran at age 10 and received his license in Islamic law from the University of Al-Azhar in 1995. Before coming to the States, he served as an imam and became an inspector in the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in Egypt.

As imam at the Tampa mosque, Shahade led Friday prayers, taught Islamic tenets to children and adults, and read to members Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The parents of the 13-year-old boy had allowed him and his younger brother to stay overnight at the mosque for a few weekends to encourage them to pray and to learn more about their religion.

According to the father, the boys had been instructed to sleep on their sleeping bags in the prayer hall. But, as he later learned, that Saturday night, the boys were in the imam's private room in the mosque.

The father told the Times last year that his son told him the boys watched television with Shahade. Then, the imam prayed. He gave the 13-year-old a glass of water.

The boy's next memory came when he woke up at 6 a.m. the next day. He found himself on the edge of Shahade's bed and felt the imam on top of him, the father said.

Nandini Jayakrishna can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or njayakrishna@sptimes.com.

Muslim cleric pleads guilty to molesting Tampa boy 06/17/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 17, 2010 11:43pm]
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