Cleric Convicted of Terrorism-Financing Charge to Be Deported

The convictions of Sheik Mohammed al-Moayad and an assistant had been overturned in October by a U.S. appeals court.
The convictions of Sheik Mohammed al-Moayad and an assistant had been overturned in October by a U.S. appeals court. (AP)
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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 8, 2009

A terrorism-financing case against a Yemeni cleric, which the U.S. government once claimed as a major victory against al-Qaeda, came to a murky end Friday as a federal judge ordered him to be released and deported, despite his 2005 sentence to 75 years in a maximum-security U.S. prison.

Sheik Mohammed al-Moayad, 60, a high-ranking political leader in Yemen, had been convicted after a five-week federal trial in New York City of conspiracy, providing material support to Hamas and attempting to support al-Qaeda.

His assistant and bodyguard, Mohamed Zayed, who is in his mid-30s, had been convicted of attempting to provide material support to Hamas.

In October, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit overturned the convictions, saying U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson Jr., improperly admitted evidence during the trial that prejudiced the jury.

In new plea deals, both defendants pleaded guilty Friday only to conspiring to provide material support to Hamas. U.S. District Judge Dora L. Irizarry sentenced them to the time they have served, most recently at the federal "supermax" prison in Florence, Colo.

Zayed, who was originally sentenced to 45 years, will also be released and deported to Yemen.

In a letter filed Friday with the court, Benton J. Campbell, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York City, said the deal is justified because the appeals court ruling would have made a conviction more difficult. He also cited "broader national security implications," which the government did not specify, and the fact that Moayad is in failing health.

"Given the international importance of this case and the fact that more than five years has elapsed since the defendants were extradited to the United States to face charges, the government feels strongly that a prompt and final resolution of this matter . . . is in the interests of justice," Campbell wrote.

The pleas and deportations mark a sudden end to an investigation that then-U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft announced in 2003, saying Moayad had admitted giving Osama bin Laden $20 million before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But before the trial, the government's star informant set himself on fire outside the White House in what he said was an attempt to get the FBI to pay him more money, and the case began to unravel.

U.S. officials say Yemen is a key front in counterterrorism efforts. The U.S. government is trying to work with weak governments there and in nearby Somalia, where insurgencies have created refuges for al-Qaeda. Yemeni authorities last month sentenced to death six al-Qaeda militants, whose attacks included an assault on the U.S. Embassy. U.S. officials reportedly hope to move as many as 70 Yemeni citizens from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Saudi Arabia.

The Yemeni Embassy in Washington released a statement saying "the fair and just resolution" of the case is "an important step in further reinforcing" bilateral relations.

Moayad's trial lawyer, William H. Goodman, said his client will return home a hero, known for his work with the poor. "The effort on the part of the U.S. government to entrap him in the current situation is both petty in terms of the international struggle against terrorism, and poorly targeted because it made far more enemies in the Middle East -- particularly in Yemen -- than friends," he said.

His appellate lawyer, Robert Boyle, said his client is dying from ailments including cirrhosis arising from Hepatitis C and diabetes. Moayad was never alleged to be a combatant and was "set up" by U.S. authorities' overzealousness, Boyle said.

Moayad and Zayed were lured from Yemen and arrested by German officials in a Frankfurt hotel in January 2003 in a U.S. government sting operation. Moayad was recorded dealing with an undercover FBI agent posing as a rich Brooklyn donor who wanted to donate $2 million to terrorism causes. Moayad agreed to get the money to Hamas in return for funds for free bakeries, schools and charities he ran in Yemen, Boyle said.

Moayad was taped boasting that he once tutored bin Laden in Islamic law and that the al-Qaeda leader called him "my sheik" before parting two decades ago .

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