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Thursday, July 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ressam judge decries U.S. tactics

Seattle Times staff reporter

U.S. District Judge John Coughenour sentenced Ahmed Ressam to a 22-year prison term yesterday for attempting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on the millennium's eve, and used the occasion to unleash a broadside against secret tribunals and other war on terrorism tactics that abandon "the ideals that set our nation apart."

"The tragedy of Sept. 11 shook our sense of security and made us realize that we, too, are vulnerable to acts of terrorism," said Coughenour in a voice edged with emotion. "Unfortunately, some believe that this threat renders our Constitution obsolete. ... If that view is allowed to prevail, the terrorists will have won."

The sentencing hearing was a gripping climax to Ressam's five-year journey through the U.S. legal system, which began on Dec. 16, 1999, when the Algerian was caught trying to bring in bomb-making materials as he arrived at Port Angeles from Canada.

During that time, Ressam morphed from an Islamic militant embarked on a terrorist mission inside the United States to a key U.S. informant into the workings of the al-Qaida network.

He was convicted in an April 2001 jury trial, but his sentencing was delayed as Justice Department officials sought his help. Then, in recent years, Ressam underwent a second transformation to emerge as a silent, uncooperative prisoner who said he only wanted to be left alone and finally learn his fate.

At yesterday's hearing, Ressam appeared as an enigmatic figure. He was clad in a pale-blue shirt. His cheeks were shadowed by stubble and his pursed lips betrayed few hints of his emotions. He declined to speak on his own behalf. Instead, he offered only a brief personal note to the judge that included an apology for his plan to set off a bomb at the Los Angeles airport.

Defense attorney Thomas Hillier, citing Ressam's initial assistance, argued for a sentence of less than 20 years.

"It is a flat fact that law enforcement, the public and public safety benefited in immeasurable ways from Mr. Ressam's decision to go to trial and (later) cooperate."

U.S. Attorney John McKay pressed for a sentence of 35 years, citing Ressam's refusal to aid in two significant terrorism cases that will now almost certainly be abandoned.

"There must be the deterrent to the horror Mr. Ressam sought to launch," said McKay, who called Ressam "the harbinger of our great loss" of lives on 9/11.

Coughenour, a veteran federal-court judge appointed 24 years ago by President Reagan, said this was the most difficult sentencing decision of his career. In the end, Coughenour said he opted for a sentence that recognized Ressam's cooperation "even though it did terminate prematurely."

Ressam will receive credit for time already served, and also is eligible for up to three years off for good conduct. The 38-year-old could be released from U.S. prison after serving about 14 years.

Ressam appeared impassive as the sentence was announced.

As the hearing broke up, he flashed a brief smile to defense attorneys.

"He was relieved to have this over," said Jo Ann Oliver, who served on the defense team.

Coughenour said he hoped the sentencing conveyed a dual message.

First, he said that the United States has the resolve to deal with terrorism, and people who engage in it should be prepared to sacrifice a major portion of their life in confinement.

Second, Coughenour said that Ressam's sentencing should demonstrate to the world that the U.S. legal system can try terrorists.

Coughenour devoted most of his remarks to this point, noting that Ressam received a vigorous defense, and that his guilt was determined "in the sunlight of a public trial. There were no secret proceedings, no indefinite detention, no denial of counsel."

Coughenour's comments amounted to a rebuke of President Bush's terrorism policies. After 9/11, the Bush administration initially proposed secret military trials for some foreign terrorists. And, it has sent hundreds of terrorism suspects captured in Afghanistan to indefinite detention at Guantánamo Bay.

Ken Lisiaus, a White House spokesman, said he was aware of the judge's remarks, and referred a reporter to the Justice Department for comment.

In a meeting with reporters after the hearing, McKay — the top Justice Department lawyer in Seattle — said he agreed with the judge's assessment that the U.S. legal system could handle cases such as Ressam's. He declined to offer an opinion on secret military tribunals, noting that such issues continue to be under review in federal courts.

McKay said that he had hoped Ressam would get more years in prison but said "we are pleased with this sentence. ... I believe that the court gave careful consideration to all that he heard really over a long period of time.

"I think the court sent an important message to would-be terrorists around the world ... and that is in the United States a fair trial will be given ... and where it is found that terrorism was committed, a lengthy prison sentence will be imposed."

Due to Ressam's refusal to follow through with cooperation, the U.S. Justice Department now expects to abandon efforts to extradite and try Samir Ait Mohamed, alleged to be an accomplice of Ressam, from Canada. The Justice Department also expects to abandon a more high-profile attempt to extradite and try Abu Doha, an alleged al-Qaida operative now held in Britain who was accused of helping recruits reach Afghanistan training camps.

"We understand that without Mr. Ressam's testimony ... that we will not be in a position to pursue the cases," McKay said.

Prosecutors said that Ressam's refusal to cooperate effectively puts him back on the side of terrorists.

Defense attorneys struggled, both during the hearing and in later interviews with reporters, to explain Ressam's decision to withdraw from assistance.

After hundreds of hours of interrogations, they said, he wearied of the process.

To regain a measure of control over his life, he opted to stop talking. He refused to change that decision, even though he knew it would almost certainly result in a longer prison sentence.

But defense attorney Hillier said that Ressam still remains steadfastly opposed to the tactics he once embraced.

Recently, Ressam was asked by a U.S. marshal about the London bombing.

"It's terrible — it shouldn't have happened," Ressam said. "But what about the U.S. bombing in Iraq, and innocent civilians being killed?"

Seattle Times researcher David Turim contributed to this report.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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