In a potentially important ruling for detainees held by the United States, Illinois U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm rejected prosecution demands and sentenced Qatar native Ali al-Marri to just eight years in jail — with a possible release in less than six years. The reduction from 15 years was expressly tied to the abusive conditions and treatment of al-Marri by the United States while held as an enemy combatant in South Carolina.
Al-Marri admitted he trained in al-Qaida camps and stayed in al-Qaida safe houses in Pakistan between 1998 and 2001. He also had regular contact with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attack, and with Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, who allegedly helped the Sept. 11 hijackers with money and Western-style clothing. He was arrested while a student at Bradley University. He was described as a “sleeper agent” without a current mission. President Bush declared him to be an enemy combatant and sent him to a Navy brig where he was abused in custody by U.S. officials.
Despite al-Marri’s claim of contrition in joining Al Qaeda, Mihm did not buy it: “I believe based on everything that I have heard that you truly do not regret what you did and that you would do it again after you go home.” That statement actually makes the decision more useful for defense lawyers. The reduction was clearly not based on contrition but on the judge’s obvious revulsion at the conduct of his own government: “My personal belief as a judge is that that was totally unacceptable. That’s not who we are.”
Al-Marri, 44, pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization. Material support is a favorite charge of the Justice Department because it was written by Congress so broadly that virtually any act can be defined as material support.
The Justice Department has suggested that it may appeal, though these decisions are laden with discretion for the trial court. Mihm is a Reagan appointee and a conservative jurist who grew up on a farm in rural Illinois. He recently announced his retirement from the bench.
With hundreds of detainees still held (and reports of similar abuse and torture by the United States), Mihm’s approach could well be duplicated by other civilian judges. It was not the approach taken with Jose Padilla, who was also held in South Carolina. He was given 17 years for conspiracy and the Justice Department moved aggressively to bar the consideration of his abuse in U.S. custody.
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