A man convicted for what he said -- words that prosecutors said incited his followers to train for violent jihad against the United States -- had a few more things to say yesterday in a federal courtroom in Alexandria before he was sentenced to life in prison.
Ali Al-Timimi, a prominent Muslim spiritual leader, delivered an impassioned statement in which he asserted his innocence, read the preamble to the U.S. Constitution and said his religious beliefs do not recognize "secular law." He then compared himself to the Greek philosopher Socrates, who was sentenced to death for corrupting the young and dishonoring the gods of Athens.
"I will not admit guilt nor seek the court's mercy," Timimi told a courtroom crowded with his supporters and prosecutors. "Socrates was mercifully given a cup of hemlock. I was handed a life sentence."
As U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema pronounced the life sentence, Timimi nodded slightly. The judge then revoked his bond, and Timimi walked slowly away in the custody of U.S. marshals, smiling and waving at supporters in the emotionally charged courtroom.
Although Brinkema called the punishment "very draconian," she said she had no choice under congressionally mandated minimum sentencing requirements. And she criticized Timimi, 41, for his role in inspiring his followers to attend terrorist training camps abroad.
"I don't think any well-read person can doubt the truth that terrorist camps are an essential part of the new terrorism that is perpetrated in the world today," she said. "People of good will need to do whatever they can to stop that."
The contentious hearing reflected the passions surrounding the prosecution of Timimi. The Fairfax County resident was convicted in April, primarily for his pronouncements to his followers in a case that some experts said raised First Amendment issues but prosecutors called a major victory in the war on terrorism.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg said Timimi "deserves every day of the time he will serve. . . . Timimi hates the United States and calls for its destruction. He is allowed to do that in this country. He is not allowed to solicit treason."
Defense lawyer Edward B. MacMahon Jr. said prosecutors have targeted Muslims since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "The local Muslim community is not a group of terrorists who need to be watched every moment by the FBI," said MacMahon, who accused Kromberg of using Timimi's religion to convince jurors that he is "the most dangerous man in the United States."
The Timimi case culminated an investigation in which 11 Muslim men, all but one from the Washington area, were charged with participating in paramilitary training -- including playing paintball -- to prepare for "holy war" abroad. Timimi was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the earlier case, in which nine men were convicted in 2003 and 2004.
Federal prosecutors have said the investigation secured more successful prosecutions than any other domestic terrorism case since Sept. 11, 2001.
Timimi, who was born and raised in the Washington area and has lectured on Islam around the world, was charged last year with 10 counts, including soliciting others to levy war against the United States and contributing services to Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers. After seven days of deliberation, a federal jury convicted him on all 10 counts.
Prosecutors said Timimi -- the former primary lecturer at the Center for Islamic Information and Education, also known as Dar Al-Arqam, in Falls Church -- was a revered figure to the Muslim men convicted in the earlier case.
The heart of the government's evidence against Timimi was a meeting he attended in Fairfax on Sept. 16, 2001, five days after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Timimi told his followers that "the time had come for them to go abroad and join the mujaheddin engaged in violent jihad in Afghanistan," according to court papers.
Many who attended that meeting practiced for jihad by playing paintball in the Virginia countryside, and some left the United States for terrorist training camps, though none went to Afghanistan and fought against U.S. troops.
Defense lawyers portrayed Timimi as a scholar whose often-incendiary rhetoric merely reflected his right to free speech. Some legal experts agreed that the case raised troubling First Amendment concerns, while others said that his words crossed the line because they could have incited violence.
But Brinkema, in rejecting defense motions for acquittal and a new trial, said she was satisfied that the case did not "violate any of Timimi's First Amendment rights. This is not a case about speech. This is a case about intent."
The judge said that the mandatory sentences, including a life term for a gun charge -- made because Timimi incited some followers to fire weapons at terrorist training camps -- were "very draconian."
Defense lawyers, who vowed to appeal the verdict and sentence, said they understood that Brinkema had no choice. "I'm very saddened today that this has come to this," MacMahon said as he concluded his courtroom remarks.