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Originally published Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 7:00 PM

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Lawyers asking feds to free bombing suspect’s friend

His lawyers said Robel Phillipos, the college student who is accused with two other friends of removing evidence from the dorm room of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, accused in the Boston Marathon bombings, had nothing to do with the bombings and was frightened and confused when he was interrogated.

The New York Times

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BOSTON — Robel Phillipos, the former University of Massachusetts student who is accused of lying to the authorities investigating the Boston Marathon bombings, will seek to be released from federal custody Monday, his lawyers said in court papers filed over the weekend.

The lawyers said Phillipos, 19, had nothing to do with the bombings and was frightened and confused when he was interrogated about going with two other friends to the dorm room of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two chief suspects, and removing a backpack and fireworks the investigators consider to be evidence.

The other suspect, Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan, 26, died after a shootout with police.

So far, only Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been charged in carrying out the bombings, which killed three people and injured more than 260 others April 15 near the finish line of the prestigious race.

His brother, Tamerlan, died after the two men tried to elude the authorities; according to the death certificate, Tamerlan was killed by gunshot wounds and blunt trauma after being hit by an SUV driven by Dzhokhar as he fled.

On Sunday, an uncle of the brothers arrived with three friends at a funeral home in Worcester, Mass., to prepare Tamerlan’s body for burial, although the question was where.

“I’m dealing with logistics,” said Ruslan Tsarni, a businessman from Maryland who said he had not seen either of his nephews in about five years. “A dead person needs to be buried — that’s what tradition requires, that’s what religion requires, that’s what morals require.”

Peter Stefan, the owner of the Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors, has been criticized for accepting the body. On Sunday, a small group of protesters gathered with American flags and signs with phrases like “Bury this terrorist on US soil and we will unbury him.”

Stefan has been unable to find a cemetery willing to accept the body and said he planned to call cemeteries with areas reserved for Muslims, as well as the city of Cambridge, Mass., where Tsarnaev lived.

“There is no other place to be buried,” Tsarni said. “He lived in America.”

But the Cambridge city manager, Robert W. Healy, pre-emptively issued a statement Sunday urging Stefan and the family not to make such a request. “I have determined that it is not in the best interest of ‘peace within the city’ to execute a cemetery deed for a plot within the Cambridge Cemetery for the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev,” said Healy, who said federal officials should handle it.

Tsarni said he had had little contact with Tsarnaev’s immediate family, although he had spoken to the brothers’ father. “He’s not really in a reasonable state of mind,” Tsarni said.

He had not spoken to Katherine Russell, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s 24-year-old widow. “I wanted to,” said Tsarni. “She’s been the closest person to him.”

The uncle said he planned to visit Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is in a medical prison center at Fort Devens, Mass. “This is another person left all to himself,” Tsarni said. “There’s no one to be next to him.”

Phillipos is to appear in U.S. District Court in Boston on Monday and will ask to be released on bond, his lawyers said. In a criminal complaint filed last week, federal investigators said Phillipos had given three different versions of events on the night of April 18 — the day the FBI released photographs of two men whom the authorities had identified as suspects — until he admitted he and two other friends had gone to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s dorm room at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.

The other two friends — Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, originally from Kazakhstan — have been charged with obstruction of justice and destroying evidence, and each face a five-year prison sentence and $250,000 in fines. They are to appear in court next week.

Phillipos, an American, faces a stiffer sentence: eight years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

Phillipos’ lawyers, Derege Demissie and Susan Church, said in the court papers that the charges against their client were “refutable.”

They said he was no longer enrolled at the college and had not seen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or the others for two months. Then, by “sheer coincidence and bad luck,” he happened to be on campus for a seminar April 18.

Phillipos, who attended high school with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was questioned a number of times without a lawyer present, his lawyers wrote.

In an attempt to show Phillipos is not a flight risk, his lawyers said he “comes from a well-educated family and was raised by a hardworking single mother” as she pursued three college degrees, including a bachelor’s degree in political science from Northeastern University and a master’s degree in social work from Boston University.

His mother, Genet Bekele, is a social worker who emigrated from Ethiopia, lives in Cambridge and specializes in handling domestic-violence cases.

She filed one of several affidavits attesting to her son’s character, saying she had raised him “with Christian values and taught him the value of working hard.”

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