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Al-Marri Sentenced to eight years for supporting terrorist organizations

Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri

Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri

A number of previous posts have discussed the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri. Today, he was sentenced to eight years in a federal prison. The New York Times reports:

A man who confessed to aiding Al Qaeda in the United States was sentenced by a federal judge Thursday to more than eight years in prison.

Under a plea bargain with federal prosecutors, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri had faced 15 years in prison, but the judge agreed to count the time he had already served.

Mr. Marri, the last enemy combatant held on United States soil, admitted in May to having attended terrorist training camps from 1998 to 2001, to meeting with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a high official within the Qaeda organization, and to having “offered his services.”

The sentence was imposed by Judge Michael M. Mihm of Federal District Court in Peoria, Ill. Mr. Marri’s lawyers urged Judge Mihm to reduce the sentence, asking him to take into account Mr. Marri’s eight years in custody, including five and a half years in a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., much of which was spent in isolation.

They argued that whatever Mr. Marri’s intentions when he traveled to this country in 2001, he no longer harbors a desire to attack the United States.

Prosecutors had argued for the full sentence, however, and on Wednesday they presented testimony from a psychologist that Mr. Marri was “likely to engage in hostile acts towards the United States,” according to The Peoria Journal Star. In Thursday’s hearing, United States Attorney David Risley told the judge that Mr. Marri still believed “that such future acts of violence against the U.S. and others are likely and morally justified.”

According to the plea agreement, Mr. Mohammed ordered Mr. Marri “to enter the United States no later than Sept. 10, 2001” and await instructions. Mr. Marri, a native of Qatar, did so, arriving with his wife and five children on Sept. 10 and enrolling at Bradley University in Peoria, where he had studied during an earlier stay. In that time, he “researched online information related to various cyanide compounds” and communicated in code with other Qaeda operatives.

Mr. Marri was initially arrested in December 2001 on charges that included financial fraud, but the government later argued that he was a “sleeper agent” for al Qaeda. Eighteen months after his arrest, as the criminal trial approached, the government changed course and named Mr. Marri an enemy combatant, transferring him from Peoria, and Justice Department custody, to military detention and the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. The original charges against him were dropped.

For much of the first three years in the brig, Mr. Marri was held under conditions of extreme isolation, which his lawyers said threatened to shake his sanity. His access to visitors and to the news media expanded as time went on, however, and by the time he was transferred, Mr. Marri had developed a respect for his jailers and had become a fan of Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show.”

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the constitutionality of detaining Mr. Marri without charging him or putting him on trial, and the Supreme Court had set an April hearing in the case. In February, however, with that hearing and its difficult constitutional issues approaching, President Obama ordered Mr. Marri returned to the criminal justice system, and he was indicted on two counts related to providing support to a terrorist organization.

In eight minutes of tearful testimony on Thursday, Mr. Marri told the judge he was sorry that he had helped al Qaeda, and no longer wished harm to the American people. He said he had been punished in many ways while in prison, and mentioned missing the first words of his youngest child.

Lawrence S. Lustberg, Mr. Marri’s lead counsel for the sentencing phase of the trial, said the team of lawyers was pleased with the result. “When this case was returned to the justice system, what we hoped for was that Mr. al-Marri would get a fair hearing and would reach a resolution that tempered justice with mercy,” he said. “And that happened today.”

How to assess the ruling? I am inclined to agree with Jonathan Hafetz. The Times notes:

Jonathan Hafetz, the lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union who led the challenge to Mr. Marri’s military detention, called the sentence “a powerful reminder that America’s civilian courts can deliver justice even in the most challenging circumstances.”

In fact, the criminal justice system is where the case should have been all along, said Eric M. Freedman, a professor at Hofstra law school who has served as a legal consultant to several people accused of being enemy combatants.

“What this shows is that well-established systems for dealing with precisely these problems work fine,” he said, “and should have been employed from the beginning. The abandonment of tried and true mechnisms resulted both in great damage to the Constitution and a huge waste of time.”

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Welcome! Who am I?

Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.