Court tosses sentence for millennium bomb plotter, says term too lenient in terror case

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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SAN FRANCISCO - A federal appeals court said Tuesday a 22-year prison sentence was too lenient for an al-Qaida-trained terrorist convicted of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport at the end of the millennium.
A divided three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Ahmed Ressam, 41, deserved a much longer prison term because he had reneged on a deal to co-operate with terrorism investigators around the world.
U.S. prosecutors said Ressam's change-of-heart - which came after two years of co-operation - compromised at least two terrorist cases in the U.S., resulting in charges being dropped.
"We are gratified that the Court of Appeals recognized the importance of public safety at sentencing and that Mr. Ressam remains a threat to the public," said U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan of Seattle.
Ressam's lawyer Thomas W. Hillier II declined to comment.
The appeals court also took the rare step of removing from the case the Seattle trial judge who imposed the initial sentence because his "previously expressed views appear too entrenched to allow for the appearance of fairness."
Federal guidelines suggest that Ressam should receive a prison sentence of 65 years to life after a jury convicted him of attempting to smuggle explosives meant for the Los Angeles airport across the Canada border in a rental car in December 1999.
Prosecutors argued for life in prison during a 2008 hearing held after Ressam recanted his co-operation and insisted that lawyers and prosecutors had badgered him into making false allegations against other alleged terrorists.
"Sentence me to life in prison or anything you wish," Ressam told the judge. "I will have no objection to your sentence. Thank you."
The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the trial judge to impose a new sentence based on the federal guidelines.
Instead, U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour sentenced Ressam to 22 years in prison, citing his two years of co-operation, and said Ressam's "life history and personal characteristics support favourable sentencing consideration."
The appeals court said Coughenour's conclusions were "clearly erroneous," and Ressam has an extensive criminal history. Writing for the majority court, Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon said the trial judge failed to take into account public safety with the 22-year prison sentence.
He said that with a 22-year term, Ressam "will be only 53 years old upon his release."
Circuit Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez dissented, writing that he would have respected Coughenour's sentence. Coughenour declined to comment when The Associated Press told him of the decision.
Investigators say Ressam attended three training camps for Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan between March 1998 and February 1999.

Organizations: Court of Appeals, Al-Qaida, Los Angeles International Airport U.S. Supreme Court The Associated Press

Geographic location: U.S. District, SAN FRANCISCO, Seattle Los Angeles Canada Afghanistan

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