A federal judge imposed a life prison sentence yesterday on one member of the alleged "Virginia jihad network" and an 85-year term on another. In an unusual criticism of her own ruling, she said she found it "appalling" but had no choice under strict sentencing guidelines.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema said the 85-year sentence she handed down to defendant Seifullah Chapman, 31, was "sticking in my craw.'' Chapman and co-defendants Masoud Khan, 32, and Hammad Abdur-Raheem, 36, were convicted by Brinkema in March of conspiring to aid a Muslim group fighting India that the government has deemed a terrorist organization.
"What Mr. Chapman has been found guilty of is a serious crime, but there are murderers who have served far less time," the judge told an Alexandria courtroom packed with supporters of the three men. "I have sentenced al Qaeda members who were planning attacks on these shores to far less time.''
In sentencing Khan to life in prison and Abdur-Raheem to 97 months, Brinkema closed an unusual case in which 11 Muslim men were originally charged with taking part in paramilitary training -- including playing paintball in the Virginia countryside -- to prepare for holy war abroad. Six defendants pleaded guilty; only Chapman, Khan and Abdur-Raheem went to trial. Two others were acquitted.
Brinkema said she was bound by federal sentencing guidelines that imposed mandatory multi-year terms on Chapman and Khan for weapons counts. The government also sought, and Brinkema granted, a sentencing enhancement for the two because their crimes were found to have supported terrorist activities.
"I have to follow the law here," said Brinkema, who then urged prosecutors to request reductions in the sentences for Chapman and Khan if they agree to cooperate in the government's ongoing investigation of potential terror suspects. The reductions could be granted only at the request of prosecutors.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg said prosecutors would consider such a request because they want information from the three men, such as the names of others who attended terrorist camps overseas. But he also requested tough sentences, saying that Khan in particular had sought to go to Afghanistan and fight U.S. troops after Sept. 11, 2001.
"While the Pentagon was still smoking, Mr. Khan decided now is the appropriate time to go fight the Americans,'' Kromberg said. "For that, he deserves every day for which this court is about to sentence him to.''
U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty, in a brief statement, said the sentences "are appropriate and reflect the seriousness of the offenses.''
The 11 defendants in the case, all but one from the Washington suburbs, were indicted last June on weapons counts and charges of training with Lashkar-i-Taiba, a group trying to drive India from the disputed region of Kashmir. The U.S. government has labeled the group a terrorist organization. Khan and another defendant also were charged with conspiring to provide material support to al Qaeda and Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers.
The Justice Department has hailed the convictions as a major victory in the war on terrorism. But the defendants, their lawyers and Muslim groups have long criticized the case, saying the men were prosecuted mainly because they are Muslim.
Those emotions were on vivid display again yesterday.
Chapman and Khan each told the judge they had done nothing wrong.
"I know the court does not believe that this case is about Islam,'' Chapman said. "I believe it is. My entire community believes it is.''
Khan read a long statement in which he likened himself to other alleged victims of injustice, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and said he had never "intended to bring any harm on the American people.'' He said that if he had been a "Zionist Jew or a Christian" he would have never been prosecuted. Khan's voice then broke as he thanked his family for its support.
Defense lawyers, as they had done during the trial, portrayed the men as loyal Americans who were playing paintball mainly for fun.
Khan's attorney, Jonathan Shapiro, blasted the government for imposing the firearms charges, which he said "drove these incredible sentences."
"This is the most serious case I've ever had a chance to participate in,'' said Shapiro, who also defended convicted Washington area sniper John Allen Muhammad.
Chapman's attorney, John K. Zwerling, called the case and the sentences imposed yesterday "the greatest miscarriage of justice I have ever been involved in."
"I cannot reconcile in my mind,'' he said, "how this is a blow to terrorism, how this makes us any safer than we were a week ago.''