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NYC student pleads guilty to terrorism charge

On the eve of his terrorism trial, an American student who studied in London admitted Tuesday that he helped a friend deliver some protective clothing to an al-Qaida military commander fighting Americans in Afghanistan.
/ Source: The Associated Press

On the eve of his terrorism trial, an American student who studied in London admitted Tuesday that he helped a friend deliver some protective clothing to an al-Qaida military commander fighting Americans in Afghanistan.

The plea by Syed Hashmi to a single count of conspiracy to provide material support to al-Qaida was entered in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, averting a trial that was supposed to begin Wednesday.

As part of a plea deal that will require prosecutors to drop three other terrorism charges at his June 7 sentencing, Hashmi agreed to serve 15 years in prison. He has already served four years, at least three of them in solitary confinement at a federal lockup in lower Manhattan.

The 30-year-old Hashmi had faced up to 70 years in prison if convicted of four criminal counts.

"He'll be out of prison before he's 40 and have his whole life in front of him," defense attorney David Ruhnke said outside court.

Hashmi, born in Karachi, Pakistan, was raised in Flushing, Queens. He obtained his bachelor's degree in political science from Brooklyn College before moving to London in 2003 to study at London Metropolitan University, where he got a master's degree in international relations in 2006.

The U.S. government's handling of Hashmi has been accompanied by an unusual outpouring of support for Hashmi from family, friends and civil rights groups that insisted he was being prosecuted because he had been outspoken against U.S. policies in the Middle East.

Prosecutors had planned at his trial to show jurors an excerpt of a five-minute videotape that they say shows Hashmi leading a June 2002 protest in Manhattan by an Islamic fundamentalist organization whose members support al-Qaida and seek the overthrow of Western society. The government said Hashmi, among other things, said "Bin Laden is not a terrorist."

Defense lawyers in papers submitted in the case had noted that the trial was to occur just blocks from the site of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001.

"It is highly likely, if not guaranteed, that every member of the jury will have a strong negative reaction to the rhetoric attributed to Mr. Hashmi," the lawyers said.

Hashmi was arrested in June 2006 at Heathrow Airport in London as he was about to board a flight to Pakistan. A year later, he became the first individual to be extradited from the United Kingdom to the United States on terrorism charges.

On Tuesday, the bearded Hashmi in his prison blue uniform and white skull cap smiled as he entered the courtroom. He displayed his religious enthusiasm several times when he answered questions from Judge Loretta A. Preska.

"By the grace of Allah, yes," he said as he answered one question.

"All praise to Allah, no," he said in answer to another, his hands folded before him.

He answered a series of "yes" and "no" questions from Ruhnke to admit his crime. He admitted he knew that a friend who stayed with him in January 2004 for two weeks was storing some ponchos, waterproof socks and sleeping bags to be delivered to al-Qaida.

Ruhnke asked if he knew al-Qaida was designated a terrorist organization by the United States.

"Yes I did," he answered.

He also admitted providing $300 to his friend to obtain a plane ticket to fly to Pakistan and deliver the goods to the military commander who would relay them to fighters in Afghanistan.

"Did you understand, Mr. Hashmi, that those actions were unlawful?" the judge asked.

"Yes," Hashmi answered.

After the plea was accepted by the judge, Hashmi shook hands with his three defense lawyers before he was handcuffed and led out of the courtroom, which was ringed with court officers.

The defense lawyers then hugged each other.

George Venizelos, the FBI's special agent in charge of the New York office, called the plea "a good outcome."

The plea came about so quickly that Hashmi's supporters were mostly absent from court. His brother, Faisal Hashmi, smiled at Hashmi as the plea was about to begin. Outside court, the brother continued to smile but declined to comment.