SAN FRANCISCO — Twenty-two years is not enough time behind bars for Ahmed Ressam, the al-Qaida-trained terrorist who lived in Montreal before his failed bid to bomb Los Angeles International Airport at the turn of the millennium, a U.S. court has ruled.
A divided three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the sentence Tuesday. It also removed the Seattle trial judge from the case and assigned the re-sentencing of Ressam to another judge.
U.S. border guards in Port Angeles, Wash., arrested Ressam in December 1999 as he drove off a ferry from British Columbia in a car that was packed with explosives.
A judge cited Ressam’s co-operation with investigators in meting out the original sentence. But since Ressam recanted his co-operation after two years, the appeals court says he deserves a longer sentence.
U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour first sentenced Ressam to 22 years in 2005, saying he deserved leniency for co-operating with investigators following his 2001 conviction on terrorism, explosives and other charges.
A federal appeals court vacated the sentence in 2007 and asked the judge to better explain himself and to follow new federal sentencing procedures.
Coughenour reinstated the sentence in 2008, saying that while the guideline range for Ressam’s offences should be 65 years to life, his initial co-operation — Ressam stopped helping prosecutors in 2003, forcing the Justice Department to drop charges against two alleged co-conspirators —likely saved innocent lives.
At that time, Ressam made no apologies or explanations for why he was recanting, and made no demands on the judge in terms of his sentence.
“I did not know what I was saying,” he said of his initial co-operation, claiming 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. I will have no objection to your sentence.”
On Tuesday, 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.
“This factor is particularly relevant in a terrorist case such as this, where Ressam, who has demonstrated strongly held beliefs about the need to attack American interests in the United States and abroad, will be only 53 years old upon his release,” Alarcon wrote.
Circuit Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez dissented, writing that he would have respected Coughenour’s sentence.
Coughenour declined comment when The Associated Press told him of the decision.
U.S. border guards in Port Angeles, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, arrested Ressam as he drove a rented car packed with explosives off the ferry from British Columbia. The ensuing scare prompted Seattle officials to cancel some millennium celebrations at the Space Needle, though investigators determined Ressam’s target was a terminal at the Los Angeles airport, busy with holiday travel.
A jury convicted Ressam in 2001 of nine offences, including an act of international terrorism, smuggling explosives and presenting a false passport. Hoping to avoid a life sentence, he began co-operating with international terrorism investigators, telling them about training camps he had attended in Afghanistan and al-Qaida’s use of safe-houses, among other things.
The government acknowledges that some of the information Ressam provided was useful. In one case, it helped prevent the mishandling and potential detonation of the shoe bomb that Richard Reid attempted to light aboard an American Airlines flight in December 2001.
Ressam also provided testimony against two co-conspirators, helping to convict them. But Bartlett said Wednesday that one of those co-conspirators, Mokhtar Haouari, is likely to seek a new trial given that Ressam recanted his statements.
Ressam quit talking with investigators by early 2003. His lawyers insisted that long periods in solitary confinement had taken their toll on his mental state; prosecutors argued that Ressam’s reticence came because they would not agree to recommend a sentence of less than 27 years.
In 2005, Coughenour used the Ressam hearing to chastise the administration of President George W. Bush for its handling of enemy combatants” in the war on terror, saying Ressam’s prosecution proved that U.S. courts can handle such cases.
Both sides appealed, with the government arguing the sentence was too light and Ressam’s lawyers challenging his conviction on one charge. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction in May, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to Coughenour for resentencing.
Without Ressam’s testimony, the Justice Department was forced to drop charges filed in New York against two other alleged co-conspirators, including Abu Doha, described as a top al-Qaida recruiter with direct ties to Osama bin Laden. Abu Doha was released from custody in London after the U.S. dropped the charges; he is currently fighting deportation to Algeria.
In the past two years, prosecutors said, Ressam has recanted statements he made implicating Hassan Zemiri, a friend from Canada who was captured by the United States in Afghanistan in 2001 and is being held at Guantanamo Bay; and Adil Charkaoui, also known as Zubeir al-Meghrebi, a Moroccan-born man who has been accused of being an al-Qaida sleeper agent and is in a court battle to remain in Canada.