Ahmed Ressam got a lighter sentence than prosecutors had requested, reflecting his cooperation in telling international investigators about the workings of terror camps in Afghanistan.
But Ressam, 38, could have received a much shorter sentence had he not stopped talking to investigators in early 2003. Prosecutors argued that his recalcitrance has jeopardised cases against two of his co-conspirators.
In sentencing Ressam, US District Judge John C Coughenour on Wednesday said he hoped to balance US resolve to punish potential terrorist acts with Ressam’s cooperation.
Coughenour also said he hoped to send a message that the US court system works in terrorism cases.
“We did not need to use a secret military tribunal, detain the defendant indefinitely or deny the defendant the right to counsel. … Our courts have not abandoned the commitment to the ideals that set this nation apart,” he said.
Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles in December 1999 as he drove off a ferry from British Columbia with a trunk full of bomb-making materials.
Ahmed Ressam was arrested in
Prosecutors recommended a 35-year sentence; Ressam’s lawyers asked for 12.5 years. Ressam could be out of prison in 13 to 14 years with credit for time served and potential reductions for good behaviour, but then will almost certainly be deported, public defender Thomas Hillier said at a news conference.
Hillier said Ressam showed little reaction to his prison term. “He takes the news better than I do,” the attorney said.
Ressam had been scheduled for sentencing in April. After more than two hours of arguments, Coughenour called it off, giving Ressam three more months to decide if he would want resume cooperation.
But Aljazeera correspondent in Washington Nasir al-Husseini said on the day the trail was called off on 28 April 2005, that Ressam personally asked the court to sentence him as fast as possible to “put an end to his suffering”.
Coughenour and federal prosecutors want Ressam to testify against his two co-conspirators, Samir Ait Mohamed and Abu Doha, who are awaiting extradition from Canada and Britain, respectively.
Information provided by Ressam in the past was given to anti-terrorism field agents around the world – in one case, helping to prevent the mishandling and potential detonation of the shoe bomb that Richard Reid attempted to blow up
aboard an American Airlines flight in December 2001, Hillier said.
“You can’t be a cooperator and a terrorist, when he stopped cooperating, he went back to being what he was”
During arguments on Wednesday, Hillier said the government’s sentence recommendation was based on “self-serving, self-generated mathematics” that did not account for Ressam’s cooperation.
“It is a flat fact that law enforcement, the public and public safety have benefited in countless ways,” from Ressam’s cooperation, Hillier said.
Coughenour unexpectedly called Andy Hamilton, a former assistant US attorney who prosecuted Ressam at trial, from the courtroom gallery to give a sentencing recommendation.
After noting that Ressam’s sentence would be “perhaps the most important sentence this court has ever had,” Hamilton told the judge that Ressam’s reluctance to cooperate should weigh heavily.
“You can’t be a cooperator and a terrorist,” Hamilton said. “When he stopped cooperating, he went back to being what he was.”