A former business professor accused of taking part in a Palestinian terrorist network was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison Wednesday for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury.
Abdelhaleem Ashqar, 49, a former associate professor of business at Washington’s Howard University, was taken into custody by federal marshals immediately after the sentencing during which prosecutors warned that he might flee.
Ashqar was convicted earlier this year of criminal contempt and obstruction of justice for refusing to testify in 2003 before a grand jury investigating the Palestinian militant movement Hamas. Prosecutors had granted him immunity.
He and co-defendant Muhammad Salah were acquitted of taking part in a racketeering conspiracy aimed at bankrolling Hamas in its violent attacks on the government of Israel. But prosecutors presented telephone records showing that Ashqar was in contact with Hamas leaders.
In a passionate, arm-waving statement before sentencing, Ashqar painted a grim picture of the suffering of Palestinians under the Israeli occupation and said some of his own relatives had been killed or jailed.
He said he would rather go to prison than betray his people as they strive to free themselves from Israeli domination.
“The only option was to become a traitor or a collaborator and this is something that I can’t do and will never do as long as I live,” he said.
Federal prosecutors said that Ashqar’s refusal to testify made it harder to investigate violent crimes committed by Hamas. Some coded messages that if understood might help to prevent acts of terrorism remain incomprehensible to investigators, prosecutors said.
“A man who knows (the meaning) is sitting right across the room but he won’t tell us,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid J. Schar told U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve.
In a key decision, St. Eve found that Ashqar’s refusal to testify was motivated by a desire to “promote terrorism.” That toughened the federal sentencing guidelines and guaranteed that he would get a stiff sentence.
While Ashqar accepted his sentence stoically, many of his relatives wept openly and a woman identified by defense attorneys as Ashqar’s mother-in-law screamed furiously at the prosecutors in Arabic. She later collapsed in the lobby of the courthouse and was taken to a hospital by fire ambulance.
St. Eve, a former federal prosecutor, listened to Ashqar as he described how a number of his relatives had been jailed and even killed under the Israeli occupation and forced to live in squalid conditions.
She said she understood his determination to struggle on their behalf “but when you’re in this country you have to do it legally.” She said that her sentence would “promote respect for the law.”
Defense attorneys said St. Eve imposed an unusually stiff sentence on Ashqar given the complex political background. In addition to 135 months in prison he was given a $5,000 fine.
“This is an obscene sentence,” said Michael E. Deutsch, an attorney for Salah, who was convicted of lying on a document and sentenced to 22 months in prison. Deutsch said five years was the most he had expected.
Deutsch noted that another man, Sharif Alwan, who refused to testify before a grand jury in the same investigation was sentenced to two years.
Ashqar attorney William Moffitt compared his client with Nelson Mandela who served 27 years in South Africa.
But U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald told reporters the sentence “may be on the high end, but it should be.”