By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 26, 2006
A third-grade teacher at a Muslim school who was the last man charged as a member of the "Virginia jihad network" was sentenced to 15 years in prison yesterday after proclaiming his innocence in a tearful and angry statement to the court.
Prosecutors had sought a sentence of 30 years to life in prison for Ali Asad Chandia, who was convicted of aiding a terrorist group that is fighting the government of India. Defense attorneys said the Pakistani citizen deserved no more than 6 1/2 years in jail.
U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton in Alexandria did not explain his reasoning as he imposed the sentence. At the request of prosecutors, he then ordered Chandia, who had been free on bond, into custody.
Chandia, 29, called out in Arabic, " Salaam aleikum ," or "Peace be with you," as he was led out of the courtroom by deputy U.S. marshals. Some of the more than 50 supporters who attended the hearing repeated the greeting and blinked away tears.
Earlier, Chandia, who teaches at a Muslim school in Maryland, had told the judge that he did not "deserve to spend a single day in prison." With his voice shaking and rising in anger, Chandia said: "With Allah as my witness, I tell everyone that I am innocent. . . . God knows that I did not support and would not support any terrorists."
As for the prosecutors who pursued the case, Chandia said, "their judgment is on its way."
The sentencing wrapped up an investigation that has produced more guilty verdicts than any domestic terrorism case since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but it has also symbolized a national debate over how to keep Americans safe.
The case began in June 2003, when 11 Muslim men were charged in U.S. District Court in Alexandria with training with and fighting for Lashkar-i-Taiba, a group fighting the Indian government that the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization.
Six of the men pleaded guilty, three were convicted at trial and two were acquitted. The group's spiritual leader, Ali al-Timimi, was convicted last year on charges that included soliciting others to levy war against the United States and contributing services to Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Civil libertarians and some Washington area Muslims have derisively called the probe the "paintball case," saying that it targeted Muslim men who never intended to attack the United States. Some members of the group played paintball in the Virginia countryside as part of what prosecutors called their preparation for holy war against U.S. troops.
But the Justice Department has hailed the case as key to the domestic campaign against terrorism, saying that its post-Sept. 11 mandate is to prevent attacks.
A federal jury convicted Chandia in June of three counts of providing material support to Lashkar-i-Taiba or conspiring to do so and acquitted him on a fourth count of supporting terrorists. Prosecutors said Chandia trained at a Lashkar camp in Pakistan and helped the group acquire paintballs and other equipment with potential military applications when he returned to the United States. The equipment included unmanned aerial vehicles, night-vision equipment and wireless video cameras, prosecutors said.
Federal investigators also found a CD-ROM in Chandia's car containing videos that glorified Osama bin Laden and the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, prosecutors said.
The divergent views of the case were evident in the reaction to Chandia's sentencing.
"Terrorist organizations like Lashkar-i-Taiba rely on a network of individuals to carry out their deadly operations," U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg said after the sentencing.
"Ali Asad Chandia was a member of that network for Lashkar-i-Taiba, and he will now spend a very long period of time in prison for providing material support in furtherance of its violent agenda," Rosenberg added.
Marvin D. Miller, an attorney for Chandia, called the sentence "excessive. It's way beyond what is necessary."
He said the 30-years-to-life term sought by the government was "irrational and almost bordering on cultural bias."
The Ali Asad Support Committee, which raised money for Chandia's defense, said in a statement that Chandia "never posed a danger to any American citizen."
"The American government has engaged in policies and practices which are targeting, harassing and persecuting Muslims whose crime seems primarily to be that they are God-fearing people," the statement said. "Ali Asad Chandia has joined those ranks."
But some of Chandia's supporters expressed relief. "Fifteen years is a lot better than life in prison," said Jafar Meredith, a local Muslim who attended the hearing. "We're grateful that it wasn't life."
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.