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Plea deal came under pressure, attorney says

When he was charged with attempted second-degree murder in the beating of a college student related to the royal family of Saudi Arabia, Fred Fernandez Jr. faced up to 11 years in prison.

In a plea agreement early this year, however, Fernandez pleaded guilty to aggravated battery and received a lesser sentence _ two years of community control, followed by three years of probation.

So why does Fernandez, 24, now want to withdraw that plea, perhaps risking a trial and a lengthy prison sentence?

Because, his attorney said, although he got into a fight outside a downtown Tampa nightclub, he didn't commit a crime. Instead, said defense attorney Ralph Fernandez, who is not related to his client, he was pressured into a guilty plea by a criminal justice system that, in turn, was being pressured by representatives of the Saudi government.

"Should we do what is convenient or what is right?" Ralph Fernandez asked.

Ralph Fernandez has filed motions to withdraw the plea as well as to mitigate the sentence that his client got on that plea. On Tuesday, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Cynthia Holloway set a hearing for 1:30 p.m. May 11 to consider the requests.

That afternoon, Fernandez plans to argue that this is a case of "manifest injustice" where the court system broke down.

"There's just no crime here, and there was an incredible amount of pressure" put on police and prosecutors, he contends.

The case started March 27, 1997, when 23-year-old Eyad Bukhari, a computer student at Tampa Technical Institute and the nephew of the commanding general of the Saudi military, was beaten severely outside Revelations, a downtown Tampa nightclub. Bukhari's injuries included dozens of fractures to the bones of his face, and doctors put a shunt in his skull to drain fluid from his brain.

After three weeks of investigation and interviews with 25 witnesses, Tampa police arrested Fred Fernandez Jr. as the person most responsible for smashing Bukhari's face.

Ralph Fernandez contends that the Saudi government pressured Tampa detectives by bringing in the first secretary from the Saudi's embassy in Washington and assigning a member of the king's protection team to keep in touch with police about the case.

Fernandez said in court Tuesday that he wants to explore whether Bukhari shared responsibility for the fight. Fernandez said he has obtained medical records that show Bukhari had a blood-alcohol level of .168 percent _ twice the level at which a driver is presumed to be impaired _ and tested positive for cannabis at Tampa General Hospital.

Ralph Fernandez contends that his client was merely defending himself after being attacked by Bukhari or others.

A full hearing on the motion was originally scheduled for Tuesday, but Holloway agreed to continue it until May 11 because the prosecutor in the case, George Bedell, was involved in another trial.

Tuesday's hearing was to include a telephone call to the court by state Rep. Deborah Tamargo, R-Tampa, who has taken an active interest in the case. In a letter filed with Ralph Fernandez's motions, Tamargo said she wanted to be informed of any concerns "pertaining to undue pressures" on police or prosecutors by the Saudi government.

Neither Bedell, Tamargo nor a representative of the Saudi embassy in Washington could be reached for comment Tuesday evening.