By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
A Falls Church man convicted of plotting with al-Qaeda to kill President George W. Bush was resentenced to life in prison Monday after the judge said his release would threaten "the safety of the American citizenry."
Ahmed Omar Abu Ali had been given a 30-year prison term after he was convicted in 2005 of joining an al-Qaeda conspiracy to mount a series of Sept. 11-style attacks and assassinations in the United States. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit upheld the conviction last year but sent the case back for resentencing, indicating that the sentence should be more severe.
U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee obliged on Monday, saying he had reevaluated the case and concluded that the danger of ever releasing Abu Ali is too great. "I cannot put the safety of the American citizenry at risk," he said, citing Abu Ali's "unwillingness to renounce the beliefs that led to his terrorist activities."
The resentencing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria marked an apparent end to one of the most emotional and highest-profile terrorism cases since the Sept, 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Prosecutors portrayed Abu Ali, who was valedictorian of his 1999 class at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Fairfax County, as an example of the threat of homegrown terrorism.
His trial was the first in a U.S. criminal court to rely heavily on evidence gathered by a foreign intelligence service. Security officers from Saudi Arabia, where Abu Ali was jailed for 20 months, provided the bulk of the government's case, testifying via video from the kingdom.
Abu Ali's family, which mounted a highly public campaign for his return to this country, said that he was tortured by Saudi security officers and that U.S. officials were complicit -- allegations that have gained resonance in recent years because of the fierce debate over the Bush administration's treatment of detainees.
But the judge, jury and appellate court rejected that argument. A juror said after the trial that Abu Ali's videotaped confession was "chilling" and showed no sign of coercion.
Before the judge imposed the tougher sentence Monday, Abu Ali said he was being mistreated at the highly secure federal prison in Colorado known as the "supermax," and he blamed "a rogue Justice Department" for his conviction.
"I cannot pretend that this is justice," said Abu Ali, who said he wanted to "remind" the judge "that one day you will go before the divine tribunal. Allah, he knows the doings of every soul. If you are comfortable with that, then you can decree whatever you want to decree."
As he left the courtroom, Abu Ali smiled and waved to a large crowd of supporters, some of whom called out in Arabic "Salaam aleikum," or "Peace be with you." Abu Ali's parents declined to comment.
His attorney, Joshua Dratel, said in an interview that the life term was "unfortunate" and that the original sentence was reasonable. "What they are really doing is setting a mandatory minimum term of life in prison for terrorism cases," said Dratel, who had urged Lee to resentence Abu Ali to no more than 30 years. "That's contrary to what the law is."
Prosecutors asked the judge to impose life. "This defendant planned acts of terrorism that were designed to inflict massive casualties on innocent civilians within the United States," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen M. Campbell.
David H. Laufman, who prosecuted the case and is now a Washington defense lawyer, attributed the sentence in part to "Abu Ali's refusal to express even a scintilla of remorse for his conduct," and he said the case "underscores the ability of federal courts to resolve the most complex legal issues" in terrorism matters.
For years, U.S. officials have been debating whether to bring such cases before the criminal justice system or to military tribunals. The 4th Circuit judges who reviewed Abu Ali's conviction indicated they thought some terrorism cases should remain in the federal courts.
The prosecution of Abu Ali was among a series of major terrorism cases in the Alexandria federal court after Sept. 11. Jurors convicted Abu Ali, then 24, on all nine counts, including conspiracy to assassinate the president. Prosecutors said Abu Ali had taken credit for originating the plot against Bush, which had not advanced beyond the talking stage.
They said the plot included crashing airplanes, killing members of Congress, and bombing nightclubs and public gatherings.
Saudi security officers arrested Abu Ali in 2003 on suspicion that he was connected to a bombing that killed 23 people in that country. His incarceration triggered a flurry of legal and diplomatic activity, with Abu Ali's parents insisting that he be returned to the United States.