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Judge will again try to fashion sentence for would-be ‘millennium bomber’

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 8:59 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — SEATTLE—When Ahmed Ressam appears in federal court in Seattle on Wednesday morning, it will be the third time U.S. District Judge John Coughenour will try to craft a sentence for the would-be “millennium bomber” while trying to balance the “horrific” nature of his intended crime, the safety of the American people and the value of intelligence the Algerian provided about al-Qaida and its operation in the dark days after the 9/11 attacks.

On two previous occasions, in 2005 and 2008, Coughenour has imposed 22-year sentences against Ressam for attempting to bring powerful bomb-making materials into the U.S. from Canada on Dec. 14, 1999, with plans to build and detonate a powerful bomb at Los Angeles International Airport during the millennium celebration. Ressam had trained in al-Qaida-sponsored training camps in Afghanistan and was part of a larger terrorist cell based in Montreal with ties to Islamic terrorists in France and Bosnia.

Coughenour specifically cited Ressam’s cooperation after his conviction on nine terrorism and bomb-related charges in the spring of 2001. Coughenour and others have cited the trial as proof that justice can be meted out in terrorism cases without the need for secret tribunals or torture.

Federal prosecutors have appealed both times, arguing variously that Ressam had stopped cooperating and had sabotaged the cases they had built with his help. According to prosecutors and federal agents, Ressam has again embraced his radical beliefs.

All of this demanded a longer sentence, they argued. Over the years, the government has asked for a 35-year prison sentence, then 45 years, and now prosecutors are asking for life imprisonment.

After Ressam’s 2005 sentencing, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to correct procedural problems, although the judges expressed concerns about the relatively mild sentence.

When Coughenour reimposed the 22-year sentence in 2008, prosecutors appealed again. This time, a majority of the 9th Circuit judges found that Coughenour had abused his discretion and ignored compelling evidence for a longer sentence.

While not ordering Coughenour to give Ressam more time, the 75-page decision makes clear the view that more time is warranted.

Among the most significant justifications, the appeals court said, was that Ressam would be a relatively young 51 after serving the 22-year sentence and could still pose a threat to the U.S. Ressam’s defense attorney, federal Public Defender Thomas Hillier, argued in court filings that Ressam will be deported to Algeria when he gets out. Moreover, Hillier said Ressam is a traitor to the terrorist cause, despite his recantations, and will spend the rest of his life in fear.

Initially, a three-member panel of judges had recommended that Coughenour be removed as trial judge for Wednesday’s sentencing. That recommendation was rejected when the case was reconsidered by a larger panel of 9th Circuit judges, who cited Coughenour’s distinguished career on the federal bench.

Hillier concedes in court filings that the ruling will likely mean that Ressam will get more time, and he asked Coughenour to impose a sentence of between 30 and 34 years. He points out that Ressam has spent the past eight years in virtual solitary confinement in the federal “supermax” prison in Florence, Colo.

Ressam’s defense in the past has provided the court with information about his deteriorating mental health resulting from repeated interrogations and isolation.

Federal prosecutors have hardened toward showing any leniency toward Ressam and now are asking Coughenour to impose a life sentence. Ressam stopped cooperating with the FBI and intelligence community years ago, they said, and has since recanted almost everything he’s said.

As a result, according to the Department of Justice, at least two other U.S. terrorism prosecutions fell through and charges against accused al-Qaida recruiter Abu Doha in Great Britain and Canadian Samir Ait Mohammed, who helped Ressam in Montreal, had to be dismissed.

For his part, Ressam just wants the proceedings over. He will represent himself in court again—Hillier is acting as his standby lawyer—and in a letter addressed to Coughenour dated Oct. 16, he again renounced his cooperation with the U.S. — an irony since his initial decision to cooperate came after he told investigators he was impressed by the fairness of his 2001 trial.

In a letter translated from Arabic and filed with the court last week, Ressam again apologized for his “action,” but pointed out that nobody died and that he is “against killing innocent people of any gender, color or religion.”

“Look truthfully at yourselves you will see how many innocent people you have killed under the guise of various slogans,” he wrote.

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