New Jersey prosecutors say they handled 62 "international terrorism" indictments last year -- but of those, all but two involved Middle Eastern students accused of paying impostors to take English tests for them, according to a newspaper analysis.
Nearly all of the accused students are free on bond. Nine have already been convicted, and most of those have been fined from $250 to $1,000 and sent back to their own countries, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Sunday.
"There is not one whit of evidence that connects any of these people to terrorism," said Lawrence S. Lustberg, who represents 25 Saudi students charged with hiring others to take their tests.
But Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Newark, said there are "very reasonable factors behind the investigation that compelled us and the Department of Justice to look very closely at these individuals." Among prosecutors' concerns: Several students held pilot's licenses.
The cases were listed as international terrorism from the beginning, and prosecutors typically do not go back and change them, Drewniak said. He said there was no attempt to mislead anyone.
The exam, called Test of English as a Foreign Language, is an entrance requirement for foreign students at many U.S. colleges. It is administered by Educational Testing Service, a Princeton-based firm.
ETS suspected a number of Middle Eastern students had used stand-ins to take the exam months before Sept. 11, 2001. Afterward, the FBI and immigration authorities scoured the firm's records.
On a national level, the Justice Department was recently criticized for inflating its terrorism-conviction statistics.