US & Canada

New Mexico compound boy 'died during ritual ceremony'

A view of the compound in rural New Mexico where 11 children were taken in protective custody after a raid by authorities near Amalia, New Mexico, on 10 August 2018. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Police described the location where the children were found as a "makeshift compound"

A boy whose remains were found in a remote desert compound in New Mexico died during a "ritual ceremony", US prosecutors said.

The boy's remains were discovered after police rescued 11 malnourished children who were being held at the site.

Five adults have been arrested on charges of abusing the children - charges they have denied.

The district judge granted all five bail, ruling the prosecution had not conclusively proven they were a threat.

Defence lawyers have argued that the prosecution are treating the five suspects unfairly because they are Muslim - something prosecutors deny.

Police raided the compound, near Amalia, on 6 August as part of their search for a missing three-year-old boy, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj.

Abdul-Ghani was not among the 11 children rescued from the compound - but police later found the remains of a young boy there.

Abdul-Ghani's father, Siraj Wahhaj, is suspected of abducting the boy from his Georgia home in December.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Suspects Siraj Wahhaj (L) and Lucas Morton

He was arrested at the site, along with Lucas Morten, Jany Leveille, Hujhrah Wahhaj and Subhannah Wahhaj.

Prosecutors had argued that the five were dangerous and should not be granted bail, because they had trained the children to use weapons and carry out school shootings.

They also said that the remains found at the site belonged to Abdul-Ghani and that the other children said the boy had died during a "religious ritual... intended to cast out demonic spirits", where Siraj Wahhaj had put his hand to his son's forehead, and recited verses from the Koran.

Abdul-Ghani suffered from seizures, but Mr Wahhaj believed the boy was possessed by the devil and needed to be exorcised, court papers said.

An FBI agent told the court that after Abdul-Ghani died, the children were told he would return "as Jesus" and tell them where to carry out attacks, an FBI agent told the court.

However, Judge Sarah Backus said that while the information she had heard was "troubling", prosecutors had not proved that the defendants posed a threat to the wider community.

"The state alleges that there was a big plan afoot, but the state hasn't shown to my satisfaction, in clear and convincing evidence, what that plan was," she said.

All five must wear ankle monitors and have weekly contact with their lawyers on bail, she ordered.

Image copyright Taos County Sheriff's Office
Image caption From left to right: Jany Leveille, Hujhrah Wahhaj, Subhannah Wahhaj

Defence lawyer Thomas Clark said the prosecution was using a double standard because the suspects are "black and Muslim".

"If these people were white and Christian, nobody would bat an eye over the idea of faith healing, or praying over a body or touching a body and quoting scripture," he said.

He criticised the prosecution for what he said were suggestions that "when black Muslims do it, there seems to be something nefarious, something evil".

The discovery of the 11 children earlier this month had shocked many in the US.

Officers who discovered the children said they looked "like Third World country refugees not only with no food or fresh water, but with no shoes, personal hygiene and basically dirty rags for clothing".

Authorities had raided the site after receiving a message from someone that read: "We are starving and need food and water."

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