SEATTLE — Rejecting prosecutors’ calls for a life term, a federal judge on Wednesday reimposed a 22-year prison sentence for an al-Qaida-trained terrorist convicted of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport at the turn of the millennium.
An appeals court had told U.S. District Judge John Coughenour to recalculate the 22-year term he gave Ahmed Ressam three years ago, but Coughenour kept the same sentence. Prosecutors earlier had sought a 45-year term for Ressam, but on Wednesday recommended a life term because they said Ressam has stopped cooperating on other cases.
Ressam told Coughenour that he recanted statements he made earlier implicating other alleged terrorists.
“I did not know what I was saying,” Ressam said. “I have escaped my words, finally. ... Sentence me to life in prison or anything you wish. I will have no objection to your sentence. Thank you.”
In recent years, Ressam has taken back statements he made accusing others of terrorism, and prosecutors said he doesn’t deserve the leniency Coughenour showed him in 2005. The original sentence was vacated by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals early last year.
Arrested in car packed with explosives
U.S. border guards in Port Angeles, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, arrested Ressam, an Algerian national, as he drove a rented car packed with explosives off a ferry from British Columbia in December 1999. The ensuing scare prompted Seattle officials to cancel some millennium celebrations at the Space Needle, though investigators determined Ressam’s target was a terminal at LAX, busy with holiday travel.
A jury convicted Ressam in 2001 of nine offenses, including an act of international terrorism, smuggling explosives and presenting a false passport. Hoping to avoid a life sentence, he began cooperating with international terrorism investigators, telling them about training camps he had attended in Afghanistan and al-Qaida’s use of safe-houses, among other things.
The government acknowledges that some of the information Ressam provided was useful. In one case, it helped prevent the mishandling and potential detonation of the shoe bomb that Richard Reid attempted to light aboard an American Airlines flight in December 2001.
Ressam also testified against two co-conspirators, helping to convict them.
But by early 2003, Ressam had quit talking. His lawyers insisted long periods in solitary confinement had harmed his mental state; prosecutors argued that it was because they would not agree to recommend a sentence of less than 27 years.
In 2005, Coughenour sentenced Ressam to 22 years, essentially splitting the difference between what prosecutors and defense attorneys requested. Coughenour noted that before trial, the government offered Ressam a sentence of 25 years if he would plead guilty — no cooperation necessary — and the judge used that as a starting point in determining the sentence.
Judge criticizes Bush administration
Coughenour also used the occasion to chastise the Bush administration’s handling of “enemy combatants” in the war on terror, saying Ressam’s prosecution proved that U.S. courts can handle such cases.
Both sides appealed the sentence, with the government arguing it was too light and Ressam’s lawyers challenging his conviction on one charge. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction in May, and the 9th Circuit sent the case back to Coughenour for resentencing in accordance with recent changes in federal sentencing procedures.
Without Ressam’s testimony, the Justice Department was forced to drop charges filed in New York against two other alleged co-conspirators, including Abu Doha, described as a top al-Qaida recruiter. Abu Doha was released from custody in London after the U.S. dropped the charges; he is currently fighting deportation to Algeria.
In the past two years, prosecutors said, Ressam has recanted statements he made implicating Hassan Zemiri, a friend from Canada who was captured by the U.S. in Afghanistan in 2001 and is being held at Guantanamo Bay; and Adil Charkaoui, also known as Zubeir al-Meghrebi, a Moroccan-born man who has been accused of being an al-Qaida sleeper agent and is in a court battle to remain in Canada.
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