By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 25, 2006
Two key members of a "Virginia jihad network," which was described by prosecutors as one of the most serious terrorism cases since Sept. 11, 2001, will be freed from prison within weeks after a judge drastically reduced their sentences yesterday.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema issued her ruling after prosecutors said the two men, Khwaja Mahmood Hasan and Yong Ki Kwon, cooperated extensively in the investigation. Both had been sentenced to more than 11 years in prison.
Prosecutors urged Brinkema to cut Hasan's sentence to 45 months and Kwon's to 41 months. Brinkema reduced that even further, giving Hasan 37 months and Kwon 38 months. With time already served and time off for good behavior, both men will be released soon, defense attorneys and family members said.
Hasan and Kwon were central to the case against a group of men convicted of preparing for jihad, or holy war, against U.S. troops in Afghanistan by playing paintball in the Virginia countryside. Both men admitted training at a camp in Pakistan run by a group the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization. Hasan testified last year that he was initially "overjoyed" at hearing about the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Eleven men, all but one from the Washington suburbs, were originally charged in 2003 with preparing for jihad by playing paintball and firing weapons in Virginia and at terrorist camps overseas. Nine were convicted. Prosecutors have not alleged that the group was planning domestic attacks, but some of the men admitted they were preparing to fight U.S. troops.
The Justice Department has repeatedly described the investigation as one of the most serious terrorism probes since Sept. 11. "Right now in this community, 10 miles from Capitol Hill, American citizens allegedly met, plotted and recruited for violent jihad," U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said in announcing the indictments in 2003.
Kenneth E. Melson, first assistant U.S. attorney in Alexandria, said yesterday that Hasan and Kwon "accepted responsibility for what they did, pled guilty and offered valuable testimony against their co-conspirators." He said the nature of conspiracy prosecutions, even in terrorism cases, "often requires encouraging defendants to step forward."
Attorneys for other defendants reacted angrily at the news.
"I'd like to know if the government has determined that these guys who were known terrorists are now rehabilitated enough to be walking the streets of Northern Virginia," said Edward B. MacMahon Jr.
He was the attorney for Ali Al-Timimi, who was convicted last year of being the group's spiritual leader and was sentenced to life in prison. "Cooperation with the government isn't the same as rehabilitation," MacMahon added.
Juliette Kayyem, a terrorism expert at Harvard University, said it is rare for defendants in major terrorism cases to be freed, in great part because of the government's intervention. "This is yet another example of where the government's public portrayal of a case ends up being much more complicated than advertised," she said.
Prosecutors said in court filings that Hasan and Kwon should receive lighter sentences because they provided "substantial assistance." The filings did not detail their cooperation, but the two Northern Virginia men testified against Timimi and several co-defendants in the case. The sentence of a third defendant, Muhammed Aatique, also was reduced last year from more than 10 years to 38 months.
Court records show that Hasan and Kwon also have testified at other terrorism trials in the United States and overseas. At Timimi's trial in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Kwon described how he voluntarily flew to Hawaii to meet FBI agents when they first contacted him in March 2003. Within days, Kwon said, he was testifying before a federal grand jury.
Kwon pleaded guilty in August 2003 to conspiracy, transfer of a firearm for use in a crime of violence and discharge of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence. Hasan pleaded guilty the same month to conspiracy and discharging a firearm in relation to a crime of violence. Both men admitted training at the camp run by Lashkar-i-Taiba, which is fighting to end Indian control over much of Kashmir and is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. government.
Hasan's father, Khwaja S. Hasan, said yesterday that the family is "hugely relieved," and Hasan's attorney, Thomas Abbenante, said his client would be freed within weeks. "He was very brave about coming forward and telling the truth about what happened," Abbenante said.
Kwon's brother, John Kwon, said the family has been "very ecstatic" since Yong Ki Kwon called Thursday to say he expected to be released next week. "It's a long time to be in the slammer," said Kwon, who lives in Fairfax. "It's like putting somebody who grew up in the suburbs of the United States and putting them in the jungle."
Staff writers Caryle Murphy and Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.