A Syrian American, accused along with his brother of setting a 2018 Old City blaze that caused more than $20 million in damage, is challenging his imprisonment, pointing to eyewitness accounts that originally identified the suspect as black.

In court filings, lawyers for Bahaa Dawara of Woodlyn, Delaware County, referenced interviews conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives just hours after the Feb. 18 blaze began at their nightclub at 239 Chestnut St. and quickly spread down the block.

Two onlookers, who were standing outside the neighboring Best Western hotel at the start of the conflagration, told investigators they saw a black male in his 20s with a dark complexion running from the scene. One said the man had dreadlocks.

Noting that his client is Middle Eastern and has short hair, Dawara’s attorney, Gerald A. Stein, wrote in court papers this month that Dawara is "31 years of age and does not fit that description.”

Stein advanced the argument in hopes of securing his client’s release while he awaits trial on charges of conspiracy, arson, and other federal crimes. But the filings also offered the first glimpse of how Dawara and his brother, Imad — who were indicted in October — might fight the case against them.

Prosecutors allege the brothers set fire to the building — where they had operated a series of struggling businesses including Barra Restaurant, hookah lounge B-Sides and the 24-hour Revolution Diner — to collect on a $750,000 insurance policy they took out just weeks before the blaze.

Brothers Bahaa and Imad Dawara were charged in October with intentionally setting the four-alarm fire at 239 Chestnut St. on Feb. 18, 2018.
Michael Bryant
Brothers Bahaa and Imad Dawara were charged in October with intentionally setting the four-alarm fire at 239 Chestnut St. on Feb. 18, 2018.

Both Bahaa and Imad Dawara, 39, of Swarthmore, have remained in custody since their arrests. U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sánchez has not responded to Bahaa Dawara’s bid seeking release on bail.

In a court filing this month, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeanine Linehan dismissed the younger Dawara’s latest claims of mistaken identity and maintained that prosecutors shared the potentially contradictory eyewitness testimony with the grand jury weighing the case this year. The panel, she noted, decided to indict the brothers anyway.

“Despite the witness’ description of the ‘black male,’” she wrote, “the grand jury indicted Bahaa Dawara as the person who conspired with his brother, Imad Dawara, to commit arson and related offenses.”

The fire broke out on a busy Presidents Day weekend, destroying the building at 239 Chestnut, displacing hundreds of neighboring residents, and devastating nearby eateries like bar and restaurant Little Lion and pizzeria Capofito.

Some pets were killed in the blaze, and two firefighters were injured.

Federal prosecutors cited little forensic evidence tying the Dawaras to the fire when they charged the brothers. However, they outlined a hefty circumstantial case.

Imad Dawara had previously threatened to destroy the building during arguments with the landlord, who had been trying to evict them for years. The Dawaras owed him more than $64,000 and had received numerous citations from the Liquor Control Board, prosecutors said.

Efforts by the brothers to sell their business had failed. And after receiving a final eviction notice in January 2017, Imad Dawara took out the insurance policy that day — even though his business already had closed.

Dawara allegedly asked the insurance broker several times in their conversation how he would be paid in the event of a fire. Sixteen days later, the blaze engulfed the building. Investigators now say they believe Bahaa set it using gasoline or other accelerants in the basement.

“The evidence in this case is strong,” Linehan wrote. She also pushed the judge to keep both Dawaras behind bars, calling them dangers to the community and potential flight risks.

The brothers are U.S. citizens but claim dual Syrian citizenship. At the time of his arrest, Bahaa Dawara had just returned from an extended trip to that country, during which he married a Syrian woman.

If they are convicted, he and his brother face a mandatory minimum sentence of 17 years.