Tsarnaev friends plead not guilty to obstruction of justice

Two college friends of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev pleaded not guilty today in federal court to charges that they obstructed justice by taking evidence from his dorm room, including his laptop and a backpack containing fireworks, on the night he went on the run.

Dressed in orange prison jumpsuits, Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, both from Kazakhstan, looked nothing like photos of them that have circulated during the past few months. In those images, they appeared, alongside Tsarnaev, enjoying everything from a trip to Times Square in New York City to a homemade meal at one of their homes.

The US District Court hearing lasted only a few minutes, with each defendant saying “not guilty” to the charges before they were taken away by US marshals.

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The fathers of both defendants were present in court. The sons waved and smiled to them.

Amir Ismagulov, Tazhayakov’s father, said after the hearing that his son was innocent. “He’s shocked Tsarnaev did this,” he said.

Kadyrbayev’s attorney, Robert G. Stahl, said in a statement that his client was a “law-abiding college student whose only crime was befriending a fellow student who spoke his more comfortable native language.”

Stahl also said that even though Kadyrbayev came from “a former Soviet-bloc region where police are routinely distrusted,” he had “fully cooperated” with authorities and answered the FBI’s questions for nearly 12 hours over two days without a lawyer or a Kazakh consular official present.

The pair, who were arraigned before US Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler, face charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice. They could get five to 25 years in prison and are currently being held at the Essex County jail in Middleton.

A third college friend of Tsarnaev, Robel Phillipos, a fellow graduate of Cambridge Rindge and Latin, faces federal charges of lying to investigators, though court papers filed last week said Phillipos is “engaged in negotiations aimed at possible resolution of this matter.”

A federal grand jury indicted Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov last week for taking evidence from Tsarnaev’s room at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, tossing some of it in the trash and watching a rubbish truck take it away. The Kazakhs allegedly acted after authorities had publicly identified Tsarnaev as a suspect.

Among the items taken were a backpack containing fireworks. The fireworks containers had been opened and manipulated, according to the indictment. The indictment also said a jar of Vaseline was found, and that Kadyrabayev believed Tsarnaev had used Vaseline to make bombs.

Defense lawyers have said Tsarnaev’s laptop was not discarded, and when law enforcement asked for the computer, they readily complied and handed it over.

Tsarnaev is facing charges that he and his brother, Tamerlan, planted the bombs that tore through the crowd near the Boston Marathon finish line on April 15, killing three people and wounding more than 260.

Three days later, on April 18, law enforcement officials released surveillance photos of the Tsarnaevs and the brothers went on the run.

Prosecutors say that Tsarnaev sent Kadyrbayev a message on the evening of April 18 telling him he could go to Tsarnaev’s dorm room and “take what’s there [smiley-face].”

By the end of the next day, Tamerlan Tsarnaev would be dead after being shot and run over by his own brother in a confrontation with police in Watertown and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would be captured, hiding in a boat stored in a back yard not far away. The two brothers are also suspected in the killing of an MIT police officer during their attempt to flee the area.