By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009
In a decision that could carry implications for the masterminds of the Sept. 11 attacks, a judge on Thursday sentenced an al-Qaeda sleeper agent with ties to the group's senior leaders to eight years and four months in prison.
The sentence sliced away nearly half of the 15-year maximum available penalty against Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, who entered the country as a graduate student on Sept. 10, 2001, under instructions from al-Qaeda operations chief Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm essentially gave Marri credit for spending more than six years on a U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. Marri was held in isolation without criminal charges as one of only three enemy combatants on American soil.
Over the course of the two-day sentencing hearing in Peoria, Ill., attorneys for Marri presented evidence of his often-bleak detention conditions, arguing that he was held in a dark and chilly cell without a blanket, a mattress and his prescription eyeglasses for long stretches, and that his mouth sometimes was covered with duct tape. The judge said he pared nine months from the prison term because of the harsh conditions.
Justice Department lawyers had exhorted the judge to ignore Marri's indefinite detention, ordered in 2003 by President George W. Bush, and to focus instead on the alleged danger he posed. They pointed to evidence uncovered in an FBI search that Marri had performed research on hazardous chemicals and had bookmarked possible U.S. targets such as dams and reservoirs.
The Obama administration moved Marri out of the military brig and into a federal court in February. He eventually pleaded guilty there to a single charge of conspiring to provide support to terrorists. That felony charge, used often by prosecutors in national security cases because of its relatively low burden of proof, carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
Experts on terrorism and advocacy groups for victims had been closely watching Marri's case for clues about what it could mean for the architects of the Sept. 11 attacks, who may soon be moved onto U.S. soil for trial in federal courts in New York and Virginia.
Given the years Marri has already served, he will spend about five more years behind bars, with the possibility of returning to his native Qatar, his attorneys said.
Kirk S. Lippold, commander of the USS Cole when it was targeted by Islamist terrorists while the vessel docked in Yemen in 2000, called the sentence "appalling" and "grossly inadequate." Lippold said that if prosecutors move other defendants from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for trials in regular U.S. federal courts, it could "create an era of unacceptable compromise to our national security."
Robert M. Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies sentencing in terrorism cases, said the Marri sentence "probably comes with the territory in switching somebody out of military detention and into the criminal justice system."
The case is one of the few concrete examples, Chesney said, of an ongoing debate over whether the U.S. criminal justice system is "up to the task" of trying and convicting terrorism suspects.
An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because a government task force is still reviewing the cases of Guantanamo detainees, said possible criminal charges against them could be far more serious and could carry much longer prison terms than Marri received.
For instance, the Justice Department this year moved detainee Ahmed Ghailani from Guantanamo to a federal courthouse in New York, where he will stand trial on murder charges relating to the deaths of 224 people in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. decided not to seek the death penalty against Ghailani, but he faces multiple life sentences.
The government's record on sentencing among terrorism suspects has been mixed, even in cases decided by military commissions, which are sometimes touted as tougher venues.
Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a driver for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, was convicted in a military trial of providing material support for terrorism and sentenced to 66 months, but he was given credit by the presiding judge for the 61 months he had spent at Guantanamo.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said, "This administration is committed to bringing terrorists to justice for their crimes."
Marri cried in the courtroom when he told the judge about the years he spent without any word from his wife and five children. His attorneys said they were "very pleased" with the resolution of the case.
Lawrence Lustberg, Marri's attorney, said in a telephone interview that his client's case "shows our system can handle [terrorism cases] in an evenhanded way, consistent with our ideals of justice."